She was the voice of a generation of children who had grown up without a school and the face of a movement to fight the Canadian government for educational equality. Though she died in 2010, a new book allows Shannen Koostachin’s story to live on forever.
At the age of 13, Koostachin, a Cree girl from the Ontario community of Attawapiskat, spoke out against the federal government that was attempting to justify denying her community a school. For over a decade at that point the elementary-school students of the community had been going to class in portable trailers, which had since become dilapidated, leaky and cold.
The JR Nakogee Elementary School that the children in her community had previously attended had been rendered toxic and unfit for students as it had been built upon a diesel spill that over a 30-year period had turned toxic.
Forever passionate about education, Koostachin became part of a major campaign to get Attawapiskat a new school through YouTube and social-networking campaigns, the largest child-driven movement for education in Canadian history.
While the community did finally get an okay from the federal government for a new school, sadly Koostachin would never see the ground broken as she was killed in a car accident in the spring of 2010.
Koostachin had a dream of all First Nations children in Canada having access to what she called “safe and comfy” schools and while that dream on its own has become a separate movement through the Shannen’s Dream Foundation, award-winning Canadian author Janet Wilson is giving Koostachin’s story back to the youth.
“It is a young reader’s book, like a middle reader’s book. I see kids reading it from Grade 4 to 8, but the subject is such that kids of any age would be interested,” said Wilson.
Like the majority of Canadians, up until recently Wilson had never heard of Koostachin. It wasn’t until she began researching kids through the International Children’s Peace Prize organization that Koostachin’s story was recommended to her by one of the organizers.
While Koostachin was nominated for the award for her fight to end educational apartheid amongst First Nations children in Canada, she was not a winner. Nevertheless, it was from this list of nominees that Wilson selected kids to be subjects of her other books.
“The series is called Kids’ Power and so they are all about kids. I have another First Nations story called Lacey and the African Grandmothers and it’s a sweet little story about Lacey as she raised money for the grandmothers in Africa who are affected by HIV/AIDS,” said Wilson.
Shannen and the Dream for a School is different from the rest of the Kids’ Power series in that it is a full-length story and though it is a reimagining of Koostachin’s life, the names and events in the book have not been changed but instead have come from newspaper clippings and interviews.
What is also different about the Koostachin story is that this book is the only one that is about a Canadian problem as all of Wilson’s other books are about educating Canadian kids about the developing nations.
“They are actually about ordinary kids who have done something that has turned out to be extraordinary. I don’t think they started out trying to be extraordinary, they just stood up and decided to speak out and young people started to support them and then the movement carried on. This is because kids can’t really do something this amazing in isolation, but if they work together, then things happen,” said Wilson.
To write the book, Wilson visited Attawapiskat to learn about Koostachin through her family and community. Wilson said she couldn’t imagine writing about a community like Attawapiskat without seeing it firsthand.
While Attawapiskat is known for its brutal, Third-World-like conditions, Wilson said that despite the poverty and devastation, it was the humour and optimism of the residents that rounded-out the experience of going there.
In the end, Wilson said she got the feeling that Koostachin’s still grieving family was happy to see the book written about her so that her message and teachings to the world can live on.
For info on the book: http://secondstorypress.ca