01/27/2012 03:45 EST | Updated 03/28/2012 05:12 EDT

Feds call for tenders to build long-awaited school in troubled Attawapiskat

OTTAWA - The federal government is moving to build an elementary school in Attawapiskat, more than three decades after contamination of the remote northern Ontario reserve's first school.

A call for tenders from six contractors was issued Friday, just a week before students from the troubled Cree community on James Bay are to take part in a United Nations conference on children's rights in Geneva.

The community has been fighting for a new elementary school for 11 years after their first school became a toxic hazard in 1979. The Harper government announced approval of the school project in December 2009.

New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he's pleased that the project finally appears to be underway after an earlier plan to build a school was cancelled by the Conservative government.

"I'm glad this school is happening, but this took the largest youth-driven children's rights movement in history to shame the government into actually coming back to the table and it shouldn't have to be that way," said Angus, whose sprawling northern Ontario riding includes Attawapiskat.

"We've been 30 years waiting for the government to fix the toxic contamination at the school site. We've been 11 years without a grade school. And we've had five lost years since the government cancelled the school project that was set to go ahead in 2009."

Critics say there are between 40 and 50 aboriginal communities across the country in just as much need of new schools as Attawapiskat.

A Senate committee recently released a report warning that the First Nations education system in Canada is in a crisis and needs a complete overhaul. Among the measure called for in the report was a First Nations education act.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan praised the report Friday, suggesting it was in step with the Harper government's policy priorities.

"We think their recommendations are helpful and will be very much compatible with our direction," Duncan said after announcing an agreement with the British Columbia government to collaborate on educating aboriginal students in that province.

In Attawapiskat, a new school will mean a new chance at getting an education for the more than 400 elementary-aged children in the community. But a school alone won't solve their education problems.

Aboriginal leaders point out that the squalid living conditions of many of the community's kids make it almost impossible to study or do homework.

Next Friday, a group of Aboriginal youth will head to the United Nations in Switzerland to challenge Canada's record on First Nation education. They will be led by a 16-year-old from Attawapiskat, Chelsea Edwards, who will issue a report entitled "Our Dreams Matter Too" on what it calls systemic discrimination against aboriginal students.