09/07/2013 10:19 EDT | Updated 11/06/2013 05:12 EST

What Happened When a Girl From Attawapiskat Made Her Voice Heard

Director Alanis Obomsawin's National Film Board of Canada documentary Hi-Ho Mistahey! premieres at TIFF 2013. It screens Saturday, Sept. 7; Monday, Sept. 9; and Saturday, Sept. 14.

In 2008, a young girl from the Northern Ontario Cree village of Attawapiskat made her voice heard throughout Canada. Frustrated by the poor conditions of her school, 14-year-old Shannen Koostachin started a campaign for a proper facility in her community.

Shannen and her friends gave speeches and invited thousands of young Canadians from across the country to write to the federal government, demanding the right to a safe and suitable education for all children. But with the campaign in full swing, tragedy struck in 2010, when Shannen was killed in a car accident. The community was in shock but determined that Shannen's fight would continue. They carried Shannen's dream from one end of Canada to the other and beyond--all the way to the United Nations in Geneva.

Shannen's is an extraordinary story. She felt she wasn't getting anywhere with adults and government, so she went to her fellow children. They felt so responsible for other children that they continued the fight--and won the battle.

In Hi-Ho Mistahey!, I tried to show a community seeking justice and fair treatment. The school issue is at the core of film, but I also wanted to show the context of everyday life in Attawapiskat, by filming the adults and other children. Living in an isolated place like that, there are only one or two stores and everything is extremely expensive. If they didn't hunt, I don't know how they would survive. I don't know why it's so expensive for Canada to send supplies up north, yet we import goods from China to be sold at such low prices. I don't know why we can't get organized and make transport and the support of isolated communities cheaper and less difficult.

Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of the First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada, helped me greatly in learning more about the urgent issues facing Attawapiskat and communities like it. My main interests have always been children and education, and Cindy and I talked a lot about the educational situation.

As for me, I'd describe my own school experience as "hell." I'm 81 years old now, so you can imagine how bad it was back then. Canadian history, as taught in school, was really anti-First Nations people, depicting us as savages and really designed as a campaign of hate, I believe. So as I grew up, I really wanted to create change. I didn't want children to go through what I went through. So I toured schools, going to classrooms to meet students of all ages to talk about history and perform songs in Waban-aki, English and French. I am where I am today because my fight for justice and equality started with children and education.

You'd have to be a pretty cruel person not to feel for this community, and Shannen's story is incredible. If the audience wants to know how to engage, more letters to the government are very helpful. When it comes to elections, politicians are very happy to make promises--but we have to keep reminding them what their jobs are.


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