It’s been a long three years in the making, but Jules Koostachin and her creative team have finally realized their goal of constructing a permanent monument to honour the life and legacy of Shannen Koostachin. Shannen’s parents, Jenny Nakogee and Andrew Koostachin, were on hand to unveil a beautiful bronze statue of Shannen in traditional regalia October 24 in New Liskeard, Ontario.
Shannen’s parents shared an emotional speech with those who attended the ceremony, including former Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence and NDP MP Charlie Angus. Jules said it was “absolutely gorgeous” when she described the consecration of the site as a sacred area to celebrate Shannen’s accomplishments before her life was cut short at 15 in a 2010 car accident.
Erected on the waterfront of New Liskeard – where Shannen moved fromAttawapiskat to attend high school – the monument is near a children’s playground and surrounded by butterfly benches. Shannen was just a child when she launched her national campaign for the “safe and comfy” schools that are lacking in so many First Nations communities. Her legacy lives on through Shannen’s Dream, an organization that continues her fight to give First Nations the resources they need to provide education.
Jules says the new memorial site is a safer and more accessible place to honour Shannen’s memory. Teachers, students, family members, friends and admirers can gather there to reflect on her struggles on behalf of young Native students.
“It’s nice that people have a site to remember her by,” she told the Nation. “It was really dangerous before, the site on Highway 11. Now there’s a site that’s safer and more accessible. The monument is really child friendly – it’s low to the ground and life size.”
Jules said that the weekend was a whirlwind of emotions, but she was “ecstatic” by the end of the unveiling. “It’s hard to articulate, but there’s a sense of completion, a sense of creating a space that’s sacred,” she said.
“These are our heroes,” related Jules, “and I think it’s important that we start honouring our Indigenous heroes. Shannen stood for equitable education and children’s rights. I hope that this will be a reminder to non-Indigenous people that many Native children have to leave their communities just to go to school.”
Originally from Moosonee, Jules noted that a few people asked her why the monument wasn’t erected in a First Nations community. She says New Liskeard was the right location for a number of reasons.
“We chose northern Ontario because it’s an important place,” Jules explained. “That’s where [Shannen] went to school and it’s a high-traffic area, a lot of northerners come through here.”
Jules Koostachin is an author, filmmaker, activist and mother of two who now lives in BC, where she is working on her PhD. She had her hands full realizing this project with her creative team consisting of sculptor Tyler Fauvelle, designer and cultural consultant Kenneth Chakasim, and documentary filmmaker Rick Miller.
She and Miller hope to release a 15-minute short film documenting the entire process and will be fundraising to offset production costs.
When asked what impact Shannen’s monument could have, Jules said she believes it can be a motivator to bring about change and mobilization to address the various issues faced by First Nations children and communities.
“I hope that it becomes a bit of a social movement, to remind people of the realities of First Nations children and their difficulties accessing education,” Jules said. “It’s a reminder and a rallying point. It’s a reminder to the rest of Canada of Shannen and her work and our ongoing struggle as First Nations. Normally Indigenous issues get bumped or deferred. I’m hopeful, but I want to see some action.”