April 13, 2012

Children demand fairness for Natives

Don't mess with children

Young people have emerged as a force for fairness in Canada's treatment of First Nations, writes Janet Wilson. The more they learn, the madder they get

By Janet Wilson
I wrote a book for young people, Shannen and the Dream for a School, based on the true story of Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat. In 2007, her Grade 8 class campaigned to get their temporary portables replaced after our government broke a third promise to build a new school. Children do not like broken promises. The class travelled to Ottawa to meet with the Minister of Indian Affairs. After being told they weren't a priority, Shannen spoke out. People listened.

"How can he tell us that we don't have the right to a new school? All students in Canada deserve a learning environment that they are proud to attend, and that gives them hope. We want the same hope as every other Canadian student."

When students in the south heard through the miracle of modern media that reserve kids were not treated fairly, thousands jumped into the childled rights movement, waving placards and writing letters. It was clear: They were not going to quit. The ministry reversed its decision in 2009. The following year, while living offreserve to attend high school, Shannen died in a car accident, but her dream for equality and justice for children in every reserve across Canada lives on. When MP Charlie Angus introduced the motion, Shannen's Dream, in the House of Commons, Shannen's friend Chelsea Edwards said: "Shannen said that we shouldn't have to beg for equal rights. But people need to know what is happening on our reserves across Canada. It's not right. We need to change this."

Since the book's release, I have been telling Shannen's story in schools. I explain the reason for the portables--their old school was contaminated by diesel fuel for 20 years. Students learn that children on reserves receive less funding than provincial schools, at least $2,000 to $3,000 per child per year less. Then the hands go up. Why is the funding not fair? Why wasn't the leak fixed? Why do so many other reserves need schools? Why do we help poor people around the world and not in Canada? These kids just don't get it. Why is there such poverty, lack of housing, illness, despair? I don't get it, either.
Comment:  I think someone involved in the Attawapiskat school protest e-mailed me in 2008 or thereabouts. The person wanted me to help publicize the cause, so I blogged about it. Just doing my little part to help the cause.

Some people--mostly those too apathetic to lift a finger--still say protesters are wasting their time. Yet here we the proof that these people are wrong. It's the umpteenth example of a business or government caving in to pressure.

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.

Below:  "Ottawa students march on Parliament Hill in 2011 in support of Shannen's Dream, calling on the federal government to address the poor quality of schools on First Nations reserves." (Chris Mikula/The Ottawa Citizen)

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