Shannen Koostachin’s Children’s Campaign for a ‘safe and comfy’ school in Attawapiskat First Nation was deeply moving. It spawned Shannen’s Dream, a Canadian youth-driven movement dedicated addressing the glaring educational inequities and alerting policy-makers to the urgent need to improve funding of on-reserve First Nations education. With the support of Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus, Shannen got her school, was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, and then featured in Alanis Obomsawin’s 2013 documentary film Hi-Ho Mistahey.
While reading the latest C.D. Howe Institute Commentary, Students in Jeopardy (January 2016) written by Barry Anderson and John Richards, a chill came over me. With clinical precision, the two authors document, once again, the abysmal First Nations graduation rates and the apparent ‘failures’ of what are termed “Band-Operated Schools.” What, I wondered, had Anderson and Richards learned from Shannen and her youth crusade for First Nations community-based schools?
For those seemingly fixated on documenting the “deficits” and proposing structural reforms in First Nations education, a refresher may be in order. In 2007, Shannen was 13 and in Grade 8, having spent her entire elementary years in squalid, poorly heated portables. When the proposal for a new Attawapiskat school was shelved, she and her Grade 8 classmates stood up for the younger students behind them. Utilizing letter writing, then Facebook and You Tube, Shannen’s children’s crusade went over the heads of politicians and bureaucrats to get their message across in the elementary schools of Southern Ontario, union halls, then on Parliament Hill and even in Geneva, Switzerland.
Tragically, in 2010, Shannen was killed in a highway accident on one of her long trips in the Near North, but her Dream lived on. Taking up the youth campaign, MP Charlie Angus pushed for a new school and succeeded in securing passage of a February 2012 House of Commons resolution to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.” In September 2014, fourteen years after the old school was closed because of a diesel fuel leak, a new Attawapiskat school opened with brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, a home economics department, and a gymnasium. Without the “outraged energy” of Shannen’s campaign it may not have happened at all.
Shannen’s educational journey is regrettably all too common. She and her older sister, Serena, graduated from the Attawapiskat school and were compelled to move hundreds of kilometres away to New Liskeard, Ontario, for high school. While campaigning for better schools, she travelled far and wide and saw, first hand, the gross inequities in schooling, especially between schools in suburban Toronto and those in First Nations communities.
Completing high school in First Nations communities requires incredible persistence. One of Shaneen’s fellow students, Holly Nakogee, attending Grade 12 in Attawapiskat in 2014-15, was typical of the true survivors. After losing her closest sister Dakota following childbirth, she moved south three times for high school, only to return ‘homesick’ each time. In a community where some 95 per cent of the housing is sub-standard and the water isn’t drinkable, graduating from high school can seem insurmountable.
First Nations children in Attawapiskat are still facing long odds and feel essentially trapped with no real bridges to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life. Looking at those all-too familiar C.D. Howe Institute bar graphs showing 2011 First Nations High School Certification Rates of 48.9 per cent for Ontario, compared to well over 80 per cent province-wide, cannot possibly convey all the “burdens” borne by those First Nations students who “fall out” of the system.
Somehow the “Action Steps” proposed in the C.D. Howe Institute report leave me cold. A “seven step” strategy is presented with the declaratory certainty of the “policy-wonk” at a safe distance from the unfolding crisis among First Nations youth. The same recommendations reappear: close the funding gap; focus on improved student results; clarify who’s responsible for what, improve Region and ‘Band’ competencies; seek incremental improvements; target program funding; and improve second-level support services.
Such an approach may produce marginal improvement and help to ease the tortured conscience of federal and provincial policy-makers and Indigenous Affairs officials. It doesn’t really get at the root of the problem and does precious little to empower First Nations people themselves.
With a new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, and more generosity of spirit, the time for social reconstruction may have arrived. Supporting traditional industries, creating sustainable employment, refurbishing housing, and embracing First Nations community-based schooling is a much better ‘whole of government’ approach. In that respect, my own Northern Policy Institute report, Picking Up the Pieces co-authored with Jonathan Anuik (September 2014), offers a sounder point of departure.
Social reconstruction and community-school development require a completely different more comprehensive, grassroots up strategy respecting First Nations ways of knowing and traditions. More funding would be a real help, but it’s going to take a generation to rebuild broken trust, foster cross-cultural reconciliation, and assist First Nations peoples themselves in this vitally important work.
What have we learned from Shannen’s Dream and the Attawapiskat School campaign? Why do First Nations ‘policy experts’ tend to fixate so much on the obvious “deficits” in student learning and graduation levels — and not really address the underlying causes? Where have top-down First Nations supervision and accountability schemes gotten us, so far? Is it easier to affix blame and point fingers than to listen, learn and act with more sensitivity? Why not try harder to get more in sync with First Nations communities and their deepest aspirations to rebuild their own communities and institutions?