We want our school! Students from Attawapiskat meet the evasive Chuck Strahl

On May 29, The National Day of Action, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl met with three students from Attawapiskat on Parliament Hill and told them that they still cannot have the school they were promised three years ago.

Over 1000 people congregated in Ottawa to stand in support of the children and to make their voices heard in protest against child poverty and the dire conditions many reserves are subjected to on a daily basis.

After their meeting with Strahl, the students of Attawapiskat expressed disappointment as they had been promised a school three years ago but the project was cancelled last year due to a lack of funding and reprioritization. Children in Attawapiskat have been attending classes in dilapidated portable-trailer classrooms for eight years now ever since a diesel spill rendered their school building toxic.

“Mr. Strahl was repeating the same thing. He said he didn’t have the money for the school and said that right now there are worse things going on and then he just rushed out of the room,” said Shannon Koostachin, 13, a Grade Eight student who met with Strahl.

The students said that they found Strahl nervous and uncomfortable during the meeting particularly after he showed them around his luxurious office and Koostachin commented on how she wished her classroom looked like that or was at least that big. At the very least, Koostachin would like to see the washrooms relocated away from her frigid trailer classroom. “They are outside the classroom and I always have to turn on the tap so that no one can hear me.”

When asked if they believed Strahl when he said that there simply was no money to build the school, Chris Kataquapit, 13, answered, “No, not one bit.”

Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, Ontario, said INAC is claiming it doesn’t have the funding to build a new school in Attawapiskat or in any other First Nation community because the department keeps using the capital budget for schools as a “honey pot” to cover other programs that fall under Indian Affairs.

The most recent Auditor General’s report on First Nations Child and Family Services also pointed to this in Section 4.72. “Because the program’s expenditures are growing faster than the department’s overall budget, INAC has had to reallocate funding from other programs. In a 2006 study, the department acknowledged that over the past decade, budget reallocations – from programs such as community infrastructure and housing to other programs such as child welfare – have meant that spending on housing has not kept pace with growth in population and community infrastructure has deteriorated at a faster rate.”

According to Angus, last year $109 million out of the capital budget went back to the Treasury Board as one of the Conservative government’s major priorities is saving money and not spending it where it is needed.

“So from 1999-2007, we have a total of $579 million dollars reallocated from the capital facilities and maintenance program to address anything else that INAC needed. Over half a billion dollars has been taken out of the fund that was supposed to be there to build houses and schools in First Nation communities and this was used to cover just about everything from legal services, public affairs, communications and spin-doctoring,” said Angus.

When the Nation contacted INAC in regards to Attawapiskat and capital funds for schools, an INAC press officer forwarded the transcription of a May 29 media scrum with Strahl. In it the minister stated, “We have about 30 or 40 major infrastructure projects this year, major renovations, health and safety issues that we have to deal with. There are lots of schools that need a lot of work but I don’t have an exact number of schools that are ahead of Attawapiskat. But, again, we rank them first on health and safety and then we have a set of criteria.”

The “health and safety” issues that Strahl is speaking of however have nothing to do with funding for education but rather a commitment made in the most recent budget for clean water and sewage treatment on reserves. According to Angus, Strahl has not made any capital announcements about school projects since his time in office and though some reparations and construction has happened during his reign, the projects themselves were the work of previous INAC minister, Jim Prentice.

“We’ve got 40 to 80 communities with no schools or condemned schools and yes we need to make a plan but you will never hear that from Mr. Strahl’s mouth,” said Angus.

More positively, since the Attawapiskat school fight began, the school and the NDP have gained a tremendous amount of support with 72 Ontario school boards backing the cause and lending their full support. Thousands of middle-class non-Native children have written letters and have become increasingly aware of the systemic discrimination and negligent abuse of children that is educational apartheid.

Angus said the Day of Action was a success for the cause as finally a face has been put on this tragedy.

Still, according to Angus, with INAC’s inaction in addressing the situation, “they are basically consigning a generation of kids to the junk pile and that seems to be all right with them.”