Sadly, Shannen Koostachin will never make the list of the greatest women in Canada. Not because she wouldn’t deserve it – she led one of the biggest youth-led children’s rights campaigns in Canada – but because she died in a car accident when she was just 15.
Fittingly she was recently included in a list of the 150 greatest Canadians alongside people like Terry Fox and Emily Carr.
She wanted a real school as she described it, a proper school for herself and her classmates in the First Nations community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario.
Not portable classrooms built on top of a toxic dump that were cold and mice infested with black mould crawling on the walls.
She and her classmates did the perfectly reasonable thing. They went to Parliament Hill to ask for a new school. Reasonable yes. But to get there you need a clear mind and a strong heart. How else can you cut through all the things that we adults rationalize ourselves into accepting?
Here’s part of the exchange between Shannen and the then Minister of Indian Affairs.
Minister: “We can’t afford it.”
Shannen: “I don’t believe you. I will never give up because a school is a time to dream and every kid deserves this.”
Who says 13-year-olds aren’t wise and mature?
Shannen became the face for indigenous children across northern Canada who were going to school in similar circumstances. Not because she wanted the attention but because necessity and love left her with no choice but to act. Her dream lives on in the work of Cindy Blackstock and the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. “There was a fire in this girl,” says Cindy.
In 2012, nearly two years after her death, the House of Commons unanimously passed, “Shannen’s Dream” affirming the right to equal education for First Nation students.
The result? There is now a new school in Attawapiskat, too late of course for Shannen.
How about in other First Nations communities? Here is Cindy Blackstock’s blunt assessment: “I don’t understand why Canada is spending half a billion dollars on a birthday party while many First Nations kids across this country are struggling to get basics like water in their school buildings… what we need is a government that unhinges itself from this idea that racial discrimination against children is a necessary part of Canadian fiscal policy.” For more details read the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s Report on First Nations education.
Dreams should not have to live on because they are unfulfilled but because they are being fulfilled. Residential schools created a stolen generation. It seems government inaction today is creating a forgotten generation.
Shannen died near New Liskeard Ontario where she was travelling to attend high school. The photo of the beautiful monument accompanying this post is located near where she died.
“We need to get a good education so we can grow up and become somebody important,” said Shannen. Clearly, she excelled at both.
- To learn more about Shannen’s Dream see the work of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society. If you’re inclined to celebrate Canada’s 150th why not support their work?
- Here is a video of a speech 15-year-old Shannen made in 2009.
- NDP leadership candidate Charlie Angus wrote a book about his friend Shannen “Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream.” Here is an excerpt courtesy of Huffington Post
Equity for children needs to come in a leap not in a shuffle. (Cindy Blackstock)