Though the community of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario has been fighting for a new school for eight years, it was not until a few weeks ago when Charlie Angus, NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, posted a video on the videosharing network, YouTube.com, that Attawapiskat suddenly became a national issue.
The story starts nearly 30 years ago when the J.R. Nakogee School became contaminated by a diesel spill while under the federal government’s watch. According to Angus, “It was the largest diesel contamination spill in Ontario and it was sitting underneath that grade school. When it was discovered that this leak had occurred, the government’s response was to stonewall any decision and demand as many studies as it possibly could in order to delay action.”
In 2000 the parents of the community decided to pull their children out of the school as both teachers and students were falling ill from the diesel build-up. At this point in time the federal government acted by giving the community temporary “portables” or self-contained trailer-like classrooms. Eight years later, the elementary students of Attawapiskat are still using the now dilapidated, cracked and poorly insulated portables and many need to walk through -40˚ temperatures on some days to go from building to building.
“So that is what brought us to the negotiations for a new school. This is a fairly large community with 400 students who have been housed in portables for eight years. We have had three Indian Affairs ministers support the project and done umpteen studies. Everything was set to go ahead this coming spring. And then Chuck Strahl turned around and cancelled it. He never even informed the people and has made no efforts to speak with the leadership; it’s because the government doesn’t consider building First Nations’ schools a priority,” said Angus.
According to Angus, the federal government is now using the funds that were earmarked for the school in other projects such as the clean water and sewage program that was announced in the last federal budget.
“They have been a little disingenuous with explaining what happened to Attawapiskat. Last year $109 million from capital money was under-spent by INAC (Indian and Northern Affairs Canada) and returned to the Treasury Board. That would have built schools, houses and medical clinics across First Nations territory. It was money that they simply refused to spend even though they have got tons of projects that are just sitting there waiting for a go-ahead,” said Angus.
Attawapiskat was not looking for a government handout to build the school either. The community instead had a rather innovative plan in place. “The community wasn’t asking the government for $30 million. It was asking the government to sign off on a bank loan tuition agreement and the community would have built its own school with its own financing. It would have been paid off over many years. So this would have been a model for how to build schools in First Nations territory,” said Angus.
When asked what he thought was behind this, Angus surprisingly responded, “Well, I can only think of two scenarios. One is that it serves Chuck Strahl’s political interests to be mean to First Nations’ children. And the other scenario is that Chuck may be not in control of his department. I think that there are elements in his department that don’t like these alternative proposals because it gives more power to First Nations to start deciding their own fate and get out from under the thumb of Indian Affairs.”
With that in mind, Angus and the NDP decided to try to appeal to Strahl and his ministry by starting a letter-writing campaign by school children in Ontario. When Angus went to one Toronto school to encourage the students to write letters to Strahl, one Grade 6 student piped up about making a YouTube video to help the campaign. “And it struck me like a bold of lightning, this is where they go for their education!” said Angus and he spent the following weekend putting together and posting the video. Since uploading the video on February 25, it has been viewed 22,450 times.
“We certainly didn’t expect 21,000 hits in two weeks. It’s becoming one of the most talked-about political videos in the country. The point of the video was to give any Grade 6 student the tools they need to join this letter-writing campaign and this is where Indian Affairs doesn’t get it. They are banking on this thing just blowing over but the amazing thing about the Internet is that it doesn’t. Every day we get 700 to 1000 new viewers and we get emails from people across Canada who are outraged at what is happening and want to help,” said Angus.
Since the video was released the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association has also taken on the cause with its 2.1 million students who are being encouraged to write letters.
Though the issue has yet to see any resolution the movement is getting stronger every day with some individuals in the community going on hunger strikes in protest of INAC. Sacred fires were also lit in the nearby community of Fort Albany in the hope that the issue will be resolved.
To share your feelings with Chuck Strahl write him at:
Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs House of Commons Ottawa, Ontario KIA0A6
To view the Attawapiskat school fight video on youtube.com, go to:
And sign the online petition at: http://attawapiskat.com/