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Shannen's Dream

Today’s story is about a young Indigenous woman who led the Students Helping Students campaign to have a school built in her home village of Attawapiskat, Ontario. In December 2007, what started out as a grassroots campaign for the government to fulfill their promises quickly became the largest youth-led rights movement in Canadian history. [1] Shannen Koostachin was a Cree youth leader who was determined to make sure every First Nation child had a school that they could be proud of. [2]

When J.R. Nakogee Primary School opened its doors in 1976, it was everything the village could have wished for, even though it was bare bones compared with the provincial schools being built. [3]. Many people from Attawapiskat attended St.Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, 90 kilometers south. The school was more than just a building- having the school in the village meant that children would not be taken away from home, and that families could be involved in their children’s development. [4]

Attawapiskat is a fly-in community that relies on barges to bring in diesel fuel for heating. The school’s underground tanks on site could store up to 1,800 gallons of diesel fuel. [5] There was a problem with adequate supply to the teacher’s units, so a new, larger pipe was approved to meet the demand. The new pipe was put in without any insulation, which is extremely problematic in subarctic muskeg terrain. [6] It did not take long for the pipe to crack and fill the ground under the school with fuel, which led to yearly increases in the complaints of illness. [7]

In 1984, the Department of Indian Affairs was sent in to assess the situation and made a few Band-Aid solutions, such as cleaning the wall studs with detergent and hauling the contaminated soil out from under the school’s crawl space. [8] Bovar Environmental was also sent in to assess the situation in 1996 and recommended scraping off the top foot and a half of contaminated soil. [9] In the meantime, the community came together to establish a separate corporation to handle all federal monies for education called the Education Authority.

The Education Authority set out to have a high school built in the community. The goal was to increase the number of children graduating high school without having to leave the community. They secured a loan from the Bank of Nova Scotia to build Father Rodriguez Vezina School. The high school opened in 1999, after being built without one cent from the federal government. [10] As the high school opened, the contamination under the primary school became too unbearable for staff and students. An environmental firm was sent in to investigate and ranked the school grounds as a level one threat to human health, the most severe threat. [11] Teachers were quitting because of the side effects, children were passing out from fumes, and serious symptoms developed in response to being exposed to toxic carcinogens. [12]

Instead of creating a health and safety plan for staff and students or bringing in medical experts to establish exposure levels in students, the government offered to put up a new roof on the contaminated building because it had begun to leak. [13] The band condemned the primary school in May of 2000 which meant finding extra space for primary school classes in the high school or teacher’s homes to help finish out the year. The Department of Indian Affairs agreed to set up seven duplex portables for four hundred students adjacent to one of the largest brownfields in Canada, with an assurance that a new school would be built. [14] These portables were all that Shannen knew of what it was like to go to school.

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After three years of empty promises from the Martin government in dealing with the educational crisis in Attawapiskat, Harper’s conservative government took over in the beginning of 2006. Jim Prentice became the new Minister of Indian Affairs and met with Attawapiskat chief to reaffirm government support for cleaning up the toxic grounds and pushing the new school project. [15] Just as the Educational Authority was completing its report detailing the plan and design for the new school, the government decided to cancel the project under another the new minister of Indian Affairs, Chuck Strahl. [16] The Attawapiskat Educational Authority believed they could get the project up and running on its own as it had with the high school in the past by securing their own financing, but the Educational Authority needed the signature of the Indian Affairs minister to sign off on the long-term tuition agreement. [17] The department refused, without any explanation.

The disappointing news came at the end of 2007. At the time Shannen was in her last year of primary school in the Attawapiskat portables and believed the graduating class had a duty to do something for their younger brothers and sisters. [18] She suggested that they write letters to the government and hold a protest. With the help of Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, political and educational leaders, the Students Helping Students campaign was created to help raise public awareness of the systemic inequities faced by children in Attawapiskat. The campaign called on students across the country to flood the government with letters asking for the children of Attawapiskat to have a school.

Shannen was inspired to create a homemade YouTube video using PowerPoint to help articulate what it felt like to be a forgotten child of Attawapiskat. More informational YouTube videos were created on how other schools could join in the fight. The campaign spread quickly and caught the attention of national media. Within a few months, other school boards, school associations, and schools across the country began showing their support. For the first time in history, Canadians were learning about the chronic underfunding and the huge disparity in per capita student funding between provincial and First Nation communities, all thanks to a teenager. [19]

Children across the country were demanding to know why First Nation children were going to school in deplorable conditions. Numerous schools in First Nation communities faced overcrowded conditions, teaching in temporary portables or hallways, a lack of fresh water, substandard plumbing, reports of asbestos and mould, roofing infrastructure problems, or needed major upgrades. [20] The government tried to contain the political damage by stating that Attawapiskat had to wait for a school because the government was forced to respond to the needs of the Pikangikum reserve, which had recently lost its school in a fire. [21] The insinuation that Attawapiskat was queue-jumping the misery line failed as a deflective political tactic. [22]

For the grade eight’s annual end-of-the-year trip they decided to head to Ottawa. Shannen and her classmates wrote a formal letter to Indian Affairs Minister Strahl requesting a meeting to talk about the school that they were promised. To everyone’s surprise, Strahl’s office confirmed that he was willing to talk to the students. A spark of hope emerged. Shannen spoke at a press conference on Parliament hill the day before the meeting. She spoke about how all Canadian students deserve a learning environment that they could be proud to attend and that gives them hope. [23].

On the day of the meeting, a plan was set in motion for the youth to speak to Strahl about the conditions they faced, and then the Chiefs and Elders would lay out the hopeful options to get the school project back on track. [24] Everyone was rushed into a plush room with cornice mouldings, wood paneling, and a chandelier. When Strahl broke the ice with a question about what the kids thought of his office, Shanned replied, “I wish I had a classroom as nice as your office.” [25] Before the discussion had begun, the Minister preemptively ended the meeting by telling the delegation that the school would not be built, that it was not on the list of priorities, and refusing to discuss options for addressing their needs. [26]

The Elders were visibly upset. Shannen furiously stormed out of the meeting and one of the Chiefs ran after her. Chief Stan Louttit confronted Shannen and told her that this was not how the meeting was going to end and told her to march back in there and be a leader. [27]. Shannen walked back into the office, stepped forward to shake Strahl’s hand, looked him straight in the eyes and said “Oh, we’re not going to quit, we’re not going to give up!” [28] The public was shocked that the government set up a meeting to deny the school to their faces and there was great concern about how this rejection would affect the children.

Shortly after the meeting, the children joined the thousands of protestors marching up to Parliament Hill. When they arrived at Parliament Hill, rally organizers informed Shannen she would be speaking about what had happened in the meeting. She panicked because she had not prepared a speech, but she was reminded by Charlie Angus that these are the moments when speaking from the heart is all that matters. [29] She told the thousands assembled that she was sad to hear that the Minister did not have the money to build their school, but that she didn’t believe him, and she could tell that he was nervous. [30] The crowd erupted in support. The headlines of how a thirteen-year-old girl who had never attended a real school stood up to the Minister of Indian Affairs swept across the country. [31]

The school campaign continued to draw support from academics and educators and decided to hit the international stage. In July 2008, the youth team from Attawapiskat sent a formal letter to the Canadian government giving notice that they would be challenged at the upcoming review at the United Nations High Commission by exposing the systemic discrimination and the government’s breach of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. [32] It was signed by Shannen and her peers.

The Parliamentary Budget Office’s research of First Nation construction and education funding revealed a disturbing lack of accountability and due diligence. [33] A clear picture could not be painted because some regions had no data for school inspections and the data that was available painted a dismal picture. Of the 803 federal reserve schools, less than half were listed in good condition and one fifth had not been inspected at all. [34] Targets for education construction were continuously being shortchanged because whenever departments had shortfalls, monies would be taken from First Nation school projects which led to delays and cancellations. [35]

The Government of Canada squandered the education of thousands of First Nation children despite calls for accountability from the Auditor General. A disturbing finding from the Auditor General stated that the funding gap that existed between First Nation students and the public had worsened by the end of the Liberal’s reign (1993-2006), and that it would take twenty-eight years to close the education gap. [36] The federal government paid full costs for Indigenous students to attend provincial schools but would only provide half of that cost to students educated on reserves. [37] For example, in Attawapiskat, Indian Affairs would provide the community with per student funding of approximately eight thousand dollars. If the student left to attend a provincial school in Timmins, as most children after grade eight did, the department would subtract the eight thousand from the Attawapiskat roll and transfer it to the provincial school board where it was topped up to sixteen thousand dollars to meet the per capita standard. [38] The situation was even more dire in cases of special needs children.

As the fall of 2008 approached, Shannen attended Timiskaming District Secondary School which is over six hundred kilometers from her home in Attawapiskat. Grade nine for reserve students entering the provincial system is the most challenging because the children are removed from their community support and are introduced to an academic environment with a curriculum in which most students are not prepared for. [39] Toward the end of the fall in 2008, Shannen spoke at the Education is a Human Right Conference at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education to keep the Attawapiskat campaign going.

Shannen had no problems in speaking about the humiliations of poverty. In her speech at the conference to educational and political experts, as well as students from across the province she articulated her experience of never feeling excited about education. She spoke about the cold classrooms, the washroom in the classroom being separated by a stall, the mice running over their lunches, and how hard it was to believe that you could grow up to be somebody important without having the proper resources to achieve those dreams. [40] Shannen even spoke about the young children in grades four and five that stop attending school because they felt that they have no future.

In 2009, the failure to address the inequities of First Nations education was mounting. The Assembly of First Nations were growing increasingly frustrated from their fruitless years of negotiating with the federal government to deliver on their education promises. [41] Just as the Ontario labour movement pledged financial support to the Attawapiskat campaign, the government caved and pledged to work with the Assembly of First Nations Chiefs on education reform. [42] Minister Strahl announced that Attawapiskat would finally get their primary school and agreed to build it to provincial standards.

About six months after the government made their announcement, Shannen was involved in a car accident that took her life. The news had a devastating impact on her community. In the fight for educational justice, her community had to contend with multiple state of emergencies with suicide and sewage contamination. [43] “Shannen’s Dream” was created in response as a way to honour her life and continue the campaign for equitable education on reserves across Canada. The construction of the primary school in Attawapiskat started in the summer of 2012 and was completed and ready for its first enrollment of students in 2014. [44] Kattawapiskak Elementary School now serves kindergarten to grade eight in Attawapiskat and was a long hard-fought battle with the government.

I would like to thank Author and Member of Parliament of Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus for his written work that I shared with you today. If this story piqued your interest, I would highly recommend buying his book called Children of the Broken Treaty. As I read this story, I couldn’t help but wonder about the status of First Nation education here in Alberta and whether these students have the resources they need to succeed. Change will come when Canadians step up and declare that equitable education for First Nations is a priority. It’s time to close the gap.

Until next time,

Team ReconciliAction YEG

[1] John Boileau, “Shannen Koostachin” (16 October 2020), online: The Canadian Encyclopedia <>.

[2] Charlie Angus, Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream (Regina: University of Regina Press, 2017) at 130.

[3] Ibid at 57.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid at 58.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid at 59.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid at 60.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid at 63.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid at 87.

[16] Ibid at 98.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid at 101.

[19] Ibid at 108.

[20] Ibid at 111.

[21] Ibid at 114.

[22] Ibid at 116.

[23] Ibid at 125.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid at 126.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid at 129.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid at 146.

[32] Ibid at 134.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid at 136.

[37] Ibid at 137.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid at 154.

[40] Ibid at 151.

[41] Ibid at 188.

[42] Ibid at 189.

[43] “States of emergency Attawapiskat has declared in recent years” ( 16 April 2016), online: The Canadian Press <>.

[44] “Shannen’s Dream”, (last visited 22 October 2022), online: First Nations Child & Family Caring Society <>.

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