Congratulations to everyone in Attawapiskat who fought so hard over many years to lobby for the construction of a new public school. This year the children started their school session in a brand-new, contamination-free school.

I was saddened to see the demolition of the once-proud J.R. Nakogee School and to witness the unfolding of the tragic story of my old elementary school. I recall the excitement in Attawapiskat over the opening of this new school in 1976. A few years after the doors opened, I attended class. It was great to be in a newer building. We children felt as if we had left the community to travel to some modern southern place. Back then, we were very happy to have running water in our school as few homes in the Attawapiskat had indoor plumbing. We had to fetch water from the river near the rapids and all of us had to use outhouses.

Just imagine what it was like for all of us children to venture out every day to a new school with all the modern conveniences. We were amazed that a short walk across town could take us to the future and a place where we learned English to add to our Cree language.

Sadly, our infatuation with our new school did not last long. A giant oil spill amounting to thousands of gallons soaked the ground surrounding our beloved school. Imagine if this had happened in a school in a non-Native in Canada. That school would have been shut down right away. However, although the people of Attawapiskat complained about the effect of the oil spill on the children there was no resolution from the federal government to do something to correct this problem. I went on to graduate several years later from this school as did so many other boys and girls. I did not know until later that I had the unique experience of graduating from a school that sat on top of one of the largest oil spills in the history of Ontario.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that the government began to take active notice of what had happened and that was only due to the fight the community organized to deal with the oil spill. The history of my tragic school came to a head in 2000 when it was finally shut down due to the contamination. Children had been attending the contaminated school for many years and many were showing signs of illness.

The temporary solution provided by the federal government was to close the school and put in place portable buildings to serve the students. There were many problems with this arrangement mainly due to the less-than-perfect construction of these buildings to deal with freezing temperatures over long hard winters. It also meant the young children had to walk from building to building in very bad weather. Imagine how difficult it was for these young children to deal with portables for 14 years while the federal government thought about the problem and a solution. I don’t think this would have been tolerated in a non-Native community in other parts of Canada.

Despite all the broken promises of a new school over a 14-year period, Attawapiskat was provided a ray of hope in the personality of Shannen Koostachin, a bright and vocal young girl who was brave enough to speak up for her fellow students in the fight for a new school. She inspired others in our home community and in the end managed to achieve a real promise from the government that a new school would be constructed. Sadly, we are still grieving her tragic death in 2010 on a highway in northern Ontario while travelling to continue her education. After so many years of being ignored by the government Shannen kept everyone’s hope alive that our community would win the fight for a new school for the children of Attawapiskat.

Thanks to the persistence of Shannen, the chiefs, council members, teachers, parents and students, the government had to deal with the issue. Thanks is also in order to Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, who worked tirelessly lobbying for the new school and who introduced a motion adopted by the House of Commons that is referred to as Shannen’s Dream. Thanks also should go out to the federal government and in particular John Duncan, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada, for finally moving ahead and constructing the new school.

Life just got a lot better for a whole bunch of children in Attawapiskat.