The children were running alongside me as we trudged along the hot and dusty road through Attawapiskat. They could hardly contain themselves. After 13 long years of heartache and struggle, the community was finally getting a real grade school.
As we walked to the site where the first shovels would ceremonially dig into the earth, the children were bubbling over with visions of what this school would be like. Lockers -- there will be lockers and we will make them pretty. A hallway -- we will have a real hallway where we can walk from class to class without worrying about the cold. There'll be a science room, a music room, a real cafeteria where mice won't eat our lunches. It was almost heartbreaking to see through their eyes the years of neglect they had faced in dilapidated portables on a heavily toxic site.
For these youngsters, the walk to the site of the new school had all the energy of Christmas morning. You could see this energy in the pictures they had painted to celebrate their new school. Colourful rainbow pictures with stick children full of smiles and little dogs and whales taking the place of clouds in the skies. Paintings to make Chagall weep.
On many of the pictures, the kids had given the school a name -- this was Shannen's school. To them, it wasn't the government or the politicians who had made this school a reality, it was Shannen Koostachin. She was one of their own. She was their voice.
Having been part of the fight for this school over the last eight years, I could name numerous community leaders, education experts, architects and advisors who had been relentless in their pressure to get this school project off the ground. Building a school in Indian country is no mean feat. The local Education Authority had produced study after study as it attempted to wade through the often-belligerent bureaucracy of Aboriginal Affairs.
The government was well aware of the brutal conditions faced by children in Attawapiskat, but no one had thought it a priority. That is until 13-year-old Shannen Koostachin had the nerve to publicly challenge the Indian Affairs Minister. Shannen opened the eyes of Canadians when she called out the government for abandoning children in Attawapiskat. Shannen took her fight for a real grade school to classrooms across Canada.
When she was 14, she was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. And yet Shannen wasn't here to see her dream come true. She died two years ago in a terrible car accident. Her death galvanized youth and education activists across Canada to launch the Shannen's Dream campaign for equal education rights for all First Nation children.
It was no small irony that June 22, 2012, the day set aside for finally making this school a reality, was the same day that Shannen would have graduated from high school. But in many ways, she was very present. Chief Theresa Spence thanked Shannen for her leadership.
Rob Haldiman, the representative of Minister John Duncan, made note of Shannen Koostachin and her dream that made this school a reality. Haldminan's Grade 4 daughter had come with him for the event because she was active in the Shannen's Dream campaign for equal education in her school in Southern Ontario. A government that had been in such needless conflict with Attawapiskat seemed to be finding reconciliation by paying tribute to the little girl with a big heart.
It's been five months since the Parliament of Canada voted unanimously to support the Shannen's Dream Motion. The Motion's intent is to close the funding gap faced by First Nation students and ensure that reserve children have similar rights for education as guaranteed to students in the provincial system. Since then, precious little has happened at the federal level. There are numerous Attawapiskats across northern Canada. A commitment of real resources is needed to provide First Nation children with a chance for brighter futures.
But I have no doubt that Shannen's dream of "comfy" schools for all First Nation children will become a reality. The reason for my faith is that all across Canada youth are carrying on the work of Shannen Koostachin. She has become a role model for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children to address the injustice of substandard education on reserve.
As I stood pondering how far we had come in this fight for equal education rights a young Cree girl came up to and asked me, "Did you really know Shannen?" It was the kind of question I often received from students in Toronto, Ottawa or London where Shannen Koostachin is a genuine hero to kids.
"Yes I knew Shannen," I replied. "She was just like you. She wasn't afraid to speak out for the children." Beaming, she ran off to join her friends. All across Canada there are children like her who believe that they too, can make their dreams come true. Truly this is the school that Shannen built.
Footage of groundbreaking ceremony in Attawapiskat for new school:
OPENING A SCHOOL