Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation was a young activist just trying to get a school in her community. Despite the high standard of living enjoyed by many Canadians, indigenous children have been forced through toxic and subpar educational systems for decades. Koostachin spoke out and organized with other youth for "safe and comfy" schools. She started the largest movement by children for children in Canada.
Toxicity at school
In 1976 J.R. Nakogee School was built for primary students in Attawapiskat. It contained kids from grade one to eight. More Cree families started to live year-round on the reserve because of the school. 400 children attended the new school. Only a few years after it opened in 1979, 30 000 gallons of oil leaked into the soil near the school from underground pipes.
This was the largest spill in the history of Nothern Ontario. Despite finding evidence of oil and noxious fumes in classrooms throughout the early 1980s along with multiple complaints from teachers and students experiencing headaches, vomiting and nausea the Canadian government refused to listen.
Aboriginal Affairs and Nothern Development Canada (AANDC) hired independent consultants to survey the contamination of the school. Their report had a clear recommendation: immediate clean up measures to tackle the spill. INAC took no further action, leaving the children and educators at the school to become seriously ill.
As the fuel continued to leak, the school became a cap keeping containments from reaching the rest of the community. In the 1990s, Venzia Secondary School was built. It was the first high school ever built in the community.
Even after another assessment is conducted on J.R. Nakogee School by AANDC consultants in 1995, the government ignored the problem for five years before finally declaring the school unsafe and shutting it down. When the school was closed, it was so toxic it had to be demolished.
Once destroyed, all of the chemical fumes that the school contained were openly released into the community. Residents were subjected to gastrointestinal diseases, respiratory illnesses and rashes because of the bezene-laden environment. Government officials are still dragging their feet in dealing with the oil spill that happened more than thirty years ago.
The residents and children of Attawapiskat have been promised a fully functioning and safe school since 2000. AANDC's "temporary" solution to the toxic elementary school was funding portable classrooms on top of J.R. Nekogee School's old playground. They are still being used today. Years of wear have made the portable units crack. Many doors don't close properly on the portables or their heating system is broken. Many young children have to wear their coats to class. Transferring students from one classroom to another means braving Artic temperatures and consumes class time.
In 2000 then AANDC Minister Bob Nault promised residents a decent school without ever taking action. Minister Andy Scott, Minister Jim Prentice and Minister Chuck Strahl all made similar commitments while never breaking ground.
Shannen Koostachin started campaigning for a real school in her community when she was only 13 years old. She started writing letters to the provincial and federal government, demanding an education equal to that of any other Canadian child. Other youth in her school became involved and they heard promises broken by politicians over and over.
In 2008, Minister Chuck Strahl wrote back and told Koostachin that the government didn't have the money for a new school. Koostachin and her grade eight peers cancelled their class field trip to Niagara Falls and instead sent a handful of students from their class to lobby in Ottawa. When she met with Minister Strahl, Koostachin said she would not give up fighting for safe schools for Attawapiskat youth.
She continued to speak out through participating in human rights conferences, speaking to other schools and passionately discussing her dream of a "comfy" place to learn across the country. Koostachin was a born leader. She spoke at the United Nations about the denial of her right to education and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize as the ambassador for the kids in Attawapiskat. Thanks to her efforts, Minister Strahl agreed to fund a school.
In 2010, while travelling the 600 kilometres it took for her to get to school, Koostachin was killed in a car accident. Her fight lives on through the Shannen's Dream campaign.
Some politicans did hear Shannen's dream. NDP MP Charlie Angus reintroduced her dream as Motion 201 in September 2011. On February 27, 2012 the House of Commons voted unanimously in its favour. As a result, there was a renewed commitment from AANDC to construct a school in the community with a promise of new political oversight.
Despite extensive research on the construction of a school in Attawapiskat, only $275 million over the course of three years was alloted to reconstructing the school and educational programs within it with no ground broken yet. This amount is not enough to implement meaningful change to an educational system that has been broken for generations.
Attawapiskat is still waiting for Shannen's Dream to become a reality.
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