In the wake of Attawapiskat youth leader Shannen Koostachin’s death in May, a new organization is being launched to carry on Koostachin’s dream for all First Nations youth in Canada to have access a proper education on par with the rest of the country.
Though only 15 at the time of her death due to a car accident, Koostachin made national headlines in 2008 because her Cree community of Attawapiskat, Ontario did not have adequate facilities for its elementary students and the children were forced to attend school in rickety old trailers beside an area contaminated by a diesel spill that their original school had been built over.
Since her tragic death, schools, school federations, political leaders and labour organizations have championed her dream.
“The Shannen’s Dream motion is a call for political change. It is a parliamentary motion that will end the funding gap that will force the federal government to have the same benchmarks and evaluation standards that exist at provincial school boards,” explained Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay and one-time mentor to the late teenager.
During the battle between the community and the federal government, Attawapiskat pleaded for a new school but was told many times that the government simply couldn’t afford it. This led to a standoff between Koostachin, then 13, and former Minister of Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl on Parliament Hill, where she stood up to Strahl and asked why she couldn’t have a school.
While Attawapiskat finally got the promise for a new school in late 2009, Koostachin later told Angus that she had had a dream for every First Nations child in Canada to have the same access to proper schooling in lieu of the sub-par system currently in place where reserve schools receive on average 22% less in terms of funding.
“In the provincial system every child in Canada and every provincial jurisdiction is guaranteed certain rights that can’t be tampered with by a minister or a bureaucrat. None of those rights exist for First Nations children,” said Angus.
The goal of the new organization is to see that the federal government meets and establishes the same benchmarks in reserve schools for funding, for class size and for teacher ratios – the main indicators that exist for a child in the provincial system. If schools funded by the Department of Indian Affairs are brought up to par, Canada’s educational apartheid system will finally fall.
Angus said the organization is taking off and creating a lot of awareness. Its main purpose is to inspire all Canadians, not just those of First Nations origins, to write to their MPs or the Prime Minister and tell them that these conditions must change.
Since its inception last spring, the organization has been raising funds to pay for a poster-and-button campaign to get the message out that this apartheid must end.
Angus explained that getting the word out about Shannen’s Dream is also about providing a role model for other youth who can carry on for Shannen.
“It’s not just for First Nations kids but for all Canadian kids who can say, ‘Wow, there was a young girl who was just like me and she saw something was wrong and stood up to it’. The idea that youth can be leaders and change the world is an important part of it. But the bigger thing is to say lets change fundamentally once and for all the system that is holding all of these kids back,” said Angus.
Koostachin was not just a role model for other children, she also impacted the lives of many adults.
Terry Downey, executive vice president of the Ontario Federation of Labour, had the opportunity to hear Koostachin speak at an OFL rally while campaigning for the school and was blown away by her.
“She had a tremendous impact on us with her compassion and desire to have labour support the concerns she was raising and to help change the conditions that exist in Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities with respect to not having proper facilities for schools and other poor living conditions,” said Downey.
The OFL has placed its full support behind the movement.
The First Nations Caring Society has also devoted a page on its website to inform the public about the movement and there is also a Facebook group for those who want to show their support and get updates.
Chelsea Edwards, a friend of Koostachin who runs the Facebook page, wrote the Nation to say, “Shannen’s Dream is growing more and more each day, thanks to the supporters who play a huge role. Remember, all it takes is one spark to start a fire.”
Shannen’s Dream will officially be launched on November 17. For more info: www.fncfcs.com/shannensdream and www.facebook.com/pages/Shannens-Dream-3/114775061902337?ref=ts