The Ontario Cree community of Attawapiskat is overjoyed in what can be described as a holiday miracle. After almost a decade of lobbying, the community finally has a concrete promise for a new school.
On Wednesday, December 9, the fly-in only community was finally told by Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl that construction of a new elementary school is now in the department’s official capital budget.
Attawapiskat has been without an elementary school since 2000 when the J.R. Nakogee School was shut down because Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) had chosen to build the school over a toxic diesel spill. Between 1979 and 2000, the 30,000 gallons of diesel that lay beneath the building turned so poisonous that both the children and staff in the building began to fall ill as a result.
Once the school was shut down the community was given a series of portable trailers to house the students temporarily, but after years of wear and tear the portables began to pose a health risk. Not only were they so close to the original school location that the students were still at risk from the toxicity from the site, many of the trailers also had cracks in them and doors that would not shut properly so they did not sufficiently retain heat.
Between the cold trailers and the fact that students as young as five would have to travel from class to class outdoors in a sub-Arctic climate in the middle of winter only added to the gravity of the situation.
Matters took a turn for the worse last spring when out of nowhere INAC decided to rip down the existing toxic school, releasing benzene-laden chemicals into the community as the school itself had been serving a cap for the spill. Adding insult to injury, the government did not have a plan to clean up the toxic site for years to come.
Not only were the community residents outraged by this, many also began to report respiratory problems, body rashes and gastrointestinal problems as a result of the site.
In Strahl’s new promise, $200,000 has been set aside for design upgrades, and construction funds are available while nearby mining company, DeBeers, is also committing technical teams and support.
The plan is to build a 400-600 student school that could also serve as a community hub and a shelter for the community in the case of flooding, something that Attawapiskat is no stranger to.
Timmins-James Bay NDP MP Charlie Angus was overjoyed with the news as he has fought for the community since he took office in 2004. Not only did Angus rally for Attawapiskat, he is also responsible for a lengthy internet campaign and for bringing children from the community to the forefront of the battle, giving a face to the campaign.
“These children have really become the face of a generation of First Nations children, who have been denied basic education and social support rights in Canada. As much as we organized and tried to do something by every possible means, at the end of the day, it was always the story of the children themselves. It was their pictures and their voices that just continued to drive this campaign,” said Angus.
At the same time Angus also has his own weariness of Strahl’s department as these promises have been made to the community before to no avail.
The first promise came in 2000 with then INAC Minister Bob Nault visiting Attawapiskat and telling residents that the school was going to be built and then leaving with nothing ever happening. In November 2005, the community got the same lip service from then INAC Minister Andy Scott. In early 2006, Jim Prentice made the promise again that the school was going ahead and to this day the ground has yet to be broken.
Angus however thinks that this time might be different due to the turmoil Strahl has experienced so publicly throughout the campaign. Not only has he been attacked by opposition parties and National Chiefs, numerous school groups from Ontario and other provinces also pressured the Conservative government through letter writing and video campaigns.
Two of the community’s children, Shannon and Serena Koostachin, even spoke of their school fight at the United Nations because they were being denied the right to a decent education.
“I spoke with the school yesterday (December 10) and they were overjoyed. They made the announcement to the community in the hockey rink, just before the children’s Christmas concert. One of the community councilors said to me, ‘Christmas finally came to Attawapiskat!’” said Angus.