After years of wrangling and broken promises, residents of Attawapiskat gathered in glee on June 22 to watch the groundbreaking for their long overdue school.
Dozens of residents stood, cheering or weeping, thank you signs dotting the crowd. The biggest honoree, mentioned in all speeches, was Shannen Koostachin, the student who, at 13, spearheaded the campaign to bring a school to the long-waiting community, before tragically dying at 15 in a car accident two years ago. The groundbreaking ceremony for the school coincided with the day Shannen would have graduated.
“The message from the speakers was never to give up, for the students not to give up their dreams,” said Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. “We know that Shannen was there in spirit, with us. It was an unforgettable moment in remembering Shannen. ”
The community became the centre of a news firestorm last year when sewage blockages drove many residents into homelessness. But long before that, Attawapiskat was, for critics, an ideal example of negligent treatment of the Aboriginal community. In 2000, the school shut down after parents took their kids out of a school that was built on the contaminated site of a 30-year-old diesel-fuel spill, a problem that was receiving no attention from the government.
“Attawapiskat is a symbol of the complete negligence that First Nations have been exposed to under the federal government, both this government and the Liberal one before it,” said Charlie Angus, the NDP MP representing the area. “[The gas leak] would be illegal anywhere in Canada, you never expose kids to these kinds of cancer-causing substances.”
After the school closed, Attawapiskat residents lobbied repeatedly for a replacement, and believed they had succeeded when, in 2007, the Ministry of Indian Affairs promised funding, only to revoke it, according to the community. The issue got international exposure after Koostachin started a grassroots campaign that became, according to the United Nations, the largest youth-driven human rights movement in Canadian history.
“She played such a big role to get the message out across the country, and getting everyone to understand what we’re going through when there’s no school in a small community, what kids have to go through with no school,” Spence explained. “Shannen’s passion was crucial, and she was led by her classmates, community leaders and family. She played a role we’ll never forget, and one we’ll honour for a lifetime. She was there for our community.”
Angus, meanwhile, cautioned that while the elation surrounding this event should be enjoyed, the issue is systemic and ubiquitous.
“We get a good news story now, but the reality is until we close the funding gap and get proper funding for other schools, other Attawapiskats will continue to happen,” he said. “It was an extremely emotional day for these children. Seeing their excitement and their sense of the future was moving. But it made me think about all the other kids across the country who are still being neglected.”
Spence agreed, stressing the importance of grassroots movements in other communities facing similar plights.
“You need to make noise and get the school in your community because it’s something the students really need in order to succeed in their lives,” she said. “I would encourage all the leaders to really make noise, the way Shannen did with our school, and get the students involved. Tell them never to give up hope and to always believe that their dream will come true.”
Both Spence and Angus mentioned the small prizes kids look forward to, most of which other students take for granted – like having a hallway and a locker to keep your school books in. For these kids, who have been learning in ill-equipped portables for years, the stability and comfort of a proper school will be welcome.
There’s still a bit of waiting to do, however. Officials estimate construction will wrap up in late 2013 or early 2014, meaning the first classes would likely begin in September 2014. But this time, there’s physical proof of the coming improvements. For a community that has suffered so many hardships in the past decade, this kind of proof is groundbreaking.