At the tender age of 15, youth leader Shannen Koostachin, who garnered national and international attention for standing up to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl on Parliament Hill, has passed away as a result of a May 31 car accident.
Koostachin, originally from the Attawapiskat First Nation on the Ontario side of James Bay, was killed when the mini-van that she was in was struck by a transport truck near Temagami. Koostachin died along with Rose Thorton, 56, of Haileybury, who was driving the van while two other passengers sustained non-life threatening injuries.
“She was one of our upcoming young leaders and it is so sad and shocking to see that her life has been cut short. We are still in a state of shock, we really can’t believe it,” said Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall.
At the time of her death, Koostachin had been living in New Liskeard, where she had moved to with her older sister, Serena, to obtain a better education than what was available to the girls locally in Attawapiskat explained Hall.
According to Hall, Koostachin was a born leader and this became evident through her public addresses made on behalf of her community’s very public nine-year-long battle to get Indian and Northern Affairs (INAC) to build a new elementary school.
J.R. Nakogee School was closed down in 2000 because it had been built over a toxic diesel spill that had occurred 30 years prior. Once the school shut down and INAC failed to honour its previous commitments to build a new one, Koostachin became a member of the local student movement to lobby the government on behalf of all of the children in her community.
Part of this lobbying movement took the 13-year-old Koostachin to Ottawa in 2008 to meet with Strahl and appeal for the school face-to-face. At the time of the meeting, a brave Koostachin described Strahl as “really nervous,” and mimicked his constantly saying “um,” between words as he stammered to respond to her. She told Strahl she liked his office and wished her classroom were as nice.
“We had a meeting with Mr. Strahl. He said he didn’t have the money to build our school and that was a bit disappointing. But, I looked at the bright side because I got to look at all of our supporters (outside) and I never thought that there would be thousands of supporters there all around me,” said Koostachin to the Nation magazine.
In December 2009, Attawapiskat finally received a commitment from the federal government to build a new school by 2012. The victory most likely would never have happened had Koostachin not come forward to tell the media about the squalid conditions that the portable classrooms she attended school in, included ill-fitting doors, mice running through her lunch room and having to wear a jacket in class to stay warm.
For MP Charlie Angus (NDP, Timmins-James Bay), who fought alongside the community of Attawapiskat, the loss of Koostachin has been ultimately “devastating”.
Koostachin lived in Angus’s home for one year while attending Grade 9 in New Liskeard though moved in with another family because Angus was on the road constantly.
While lobbying for the new school, Koostachin made a series of public addresses with Angus to garner public support.
“We did an event together just before we won the victory for the school and she blew the crowd away. She and her sister spoke at an Ontario Federation of Labour meeting and they were incredible. They walked out of that room with the commitment of every union in Ontario backing the campaign to build a school – it was amazing. She was just so honest and so raw and that’s how people knew she was real,” said Angus.
For Angus, Koostachin’s ability to capture an audience and make national and international headlines was uncanny considering that she was so young, that her first language was Cree and that she came from a community 400km from the nearest road. He credited this to her unbreakable determination.
While Koostachin would have been too old to attend the new elementary school in Attawapiskat, her fight for the school never wavered as she did not want her younger brothers and sisters to go to school under circumstances that she could only describe as “shameful”.
Angus said being in the media spotlight was something that Shannen had described to him as “uncomfortable”, though she persevered despite this to inspire children from across Canada to write letters to Strahl on behalf of the Children of Attawapiskat.
Because of her efforts, in 2009 Koostachin was nominated for a United Nations International Children’s Peace Prize amongst 45 other youth from around the world. Though she did not win the award, according to Chief Hall, the nomination spoke for itself.
As part of her nomination, Koostachin had to write a letter describing what she was fighting for, here is an excerpt from that letter:
“I was always taught by the parents to stand up and speak out for myself. My message is to never give up. You get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins.
“When I was a little kid, I always use to think what a great leader my dad was, Andrew
Koostachin. He taught me to look up to the Seven Grandfathers: Love, Respect, Truth, Honesty, Humility, Bravery and Wisdom. Those are called the Seven Grandfathers.
“The other thing my dad taught me about life is to take three steps: put God first, because He made you and me; second is family because they give you love; the third is education. School is very important! This why I’m here because children before Grade 5 had already lost hope.
“There are three other things I would like people to know about me: one, I do not like
broken promises. Two, I do not like seeing my siblings going to school in portables – portables are washrooms. They aren’t classrooms. And three, I would like them to know too that I AM NOT GIVING UP.
“I’ve been going to school in these washrooms for eight long struggling years now. I do not want my younger brother and sisters thinking those portables are proper schools.”
While Koostachin became known for her fighting spirit and ability to captivate the hearts of those she spoke to, Angus said Shannen was just a normal kid who was enjoying being a teenager. In the last two years of her life, Shannen felt privileged to be able to go to what she described as a “comfy school” that had a library and somewhere to play basketball.
At the same time, a new community came with its own difficulties as for as much as she valued her education and was pursuing it for the sake of her future, this also meant being away from her family and community. Though Angus said she did not frequently discuss her emotions, when asked, she would describe her “intense sadness” in being away from those that she loved.
On June 5, Angus had the privilege of eulogizing Koostachin at her funeral. Here is an excerpt: “If Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela had died in a car crash when they were 15 would the world have ever known what it had lost? With Shannen we had a glimpse of what might have been. Shannen was a young woman who saw the conditions for children in Attawapiskat and she was on fire to change these conditions. In doing so, she changed Canada. All across the country, people are mourning the loss of this young woman. This is quite an accomplishment for someone who was only in Grade 10.”
In the wake of Koostachin’s passing, Angus has started the Shannen Koostachin Memorial Fund to carry on her fight for First Nations children. The fund will serve two purposes: first, a scholarship fund for inspire James Bay Cree Youth to believe that they have a future in education and second, to carry the fight that Shannen began.
Just days after her funeral, Angus told the Nation that organizations, such as the Ontario Public School Board Association, all of the Ontario Federation of Labour’s unions and even Google New York have come forward with the desire to create a special project that for now is being called “Shannen’s Dream”.
According to Angus, Koostachin had a dream that every child should have a proper school and though they are now just working on where to take this project, Angus and various organizations will be coming together to ensure that every community has the resources to fight to get what they need – schools. Part of the idea behind the campaign will be to inspire Native and non-Native youth to work together to end systemic discrimination once and for all.
Those interested can make donations to:
Shannen Koostachin Memorial Fund
c/o First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada
251 Bank Street
Ottawa, ON K2P 1X3