Remember when you were in grade school? In Junior High? I remember it particularly well, because it was during those years that I moved from being a shy, quiet boy with no friends to more of an active, talkative young man was known for more than just good grades. The change was significant, and I can identify specific individuals who supported me in that change. For me, those years of transition were extremely important for defining myself, in a way that would last for the rest of my life. I look back at that time as essential in defining myself.
So I cannot imagine who I would be, or what I would be like, if I had not had an elementary school to grow up in. I would have been very different, and the thought that some people don’t have access to such a school surprised me. Now we understand that in some parts of the world it is not possible; for years now I’ve been supporting the rights of girls to go to school in areas controlled by the Taliban. Other families in undeveloped areas have no funds for education. But those are anomalies: anomalies that need to be fixed. And they are not nearby. Not close. To discover that parallel conditions exist in Canada is more than just “surprising”. It’s offencive.
The book is called, “Shannen and the Dream for a School”, by Janet Wilson. I read it after the “Idle No More” movement touched international headlines, and Chief Theresa Spence, from the northern community of Attawapiskat, went on a 44-day hunger strike to bring awareness of the conditions that native people live in, and their difficulties in gaining equality with other Canadians. Although she did not achieve her aim before she had to call off the strike, many feel that Theresa’s strike was worth it. It brought those difficulties to the national stage: and I was one of the people who responded. As Ms. Spence was wrapping up her strike, I watched the CBC documentary “8th Fire”, and explored some of the other references I discovered about the First Nation peoples.
This book itself is about Shannen Koostachin: a young Aboriginal woman, also from Attawapiskat. In 2000, the elementary school on this reserve was closed and eventually demolished ( c. 2007) due to contamination from an oil spill some 20 years before. Ms. Koostachin grew up attending her early school years in a series of portables because the building could not be used. Now I had one class in a portable in high school; that was enough. This would have been in the frigid north, where winter temperatures reach -40º. Those portables, in spite of maintenance, were mouldy, mouse-infested, cold and uncomfortable. And these were kids: the “school” was for children in kindergarten through grade 8. The Federal government promised several times to build a school for the community, and then went back on that promise when Shannon was twelve years old. That started a passionate fight by the young woman to get a new school for her community, and to stand up for equal rights for Aboriginal peoples. The book describes her experience and that of her family and friends: as the close-knit group of people were thrown into international politics. Shannon wanted to get a good education, to go to university and be a lawyer; many of us have to leave home for post-secondary education, but she went to live with a different family to attend high school. While Shannen was becoming a teen, trying to negotiate the personal difficulties involved with her education, relationships and discovering maturity, she was also leading a significant fight. It started small, but garnered the power of the Internet and Social Media to great lengths. She became a great speaker for her cause, travelling about the country and meeting ministers in Ottawa to make her requests. At the end of 2009, the people were “informed by the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development that a new school will be built in the community” (Aboriginal Affairs, 2009). That fight was won, but it was only one battle.
Shannen died in 2010, at the age of only 15, “when the mini-van that she was in was struck by a transport truck” (Nation News, 2010). She did not live to see a new school build for her community; although apparently ground has been broken in 2012. The community still struggles without a school (Simcoe.com, 2013), but they are continue to educate their children as they can. The plans for a new elementary school have been developed and it is hoped to open later this year, in 2013 (CBC, 2012). I hope it goes well and gives the community more of a firm foundation for moving forward as an Indigenous part of our modern culture.
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