Attawapiskat elementary school students will attend a modern, brick-and-mortar school this year – something they haven’t done for more than a decade.

The new Kattawapiskak Elementary School will include 16 regular classrooms, five nursery and kindergarten classrooms, and three special-needs classrooms. It will also include a classroom dedicated to teaching Cree culture. Kattawapiskak is a traditional Cree word for community.

Construction on the $31 million project began in 2012 and is being funded by Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada.

Finally winning that investment was a long, difficult struggle. And the new school is seen as a victory for the small, northern community.

Community members have been campaigning for the school since 2000, when a fuel pump located under Attawapiskat’s only elementary school burst, contaminating the area and forcing students to relocate.

Since then students have attended classes in dilapidated portables, some of which were poorly heated.

One of the most prominent and powerful voices in the community’s fight to build a new school was Shannen Koostachin. She attended school in the portables, and at 13 she began raising awareness about the issue, meeting with political officials and giving talks across the country.

Tragically, Koostachin died at 15 in a car accident in 2010.