Attawapiskat versus Ottawa

How a students’ campaign on an isolated reserve overcame years of official neglect.

We are all treaty people, the Cree remind us. We debate what Canada is bound to by those treaties with First Nations that gave us Canada, but the educational promise at least seems plain: “to pay such salaries of teachers to instruct the children of said Indians, and also to provide such school buildings and educational equipment as may seem advisable.”

Charlie Angus, member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay for a decade and a school trustee before that, focuses Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream on that specific treaty promise. Everywhere in Canada, he observes, students go to schools where accountable local school trustees ensure they are decently funded and equipped. If schools in reserve communities such as Attawapiskat on Ontario’s James Bay shore must be controlled by Ottawa, he asks, should not the government at least meet standards taken for granted in the rest of the country?

There was an elementary school in Attawapiskat, and it had some notable successes in sending local youth on to further education. But the school closed in 2000, condemned as a class-one threat to human health and a chronic source of skin rashes, nosebleeds, and the threat of liver and central nervous system damage for the students who attended. Eventually a commitment for a new school was secured. Then in 2007 Ottawa withdrew the commitment.

Meanwhile Attawapiskat students went to class in a cluster of portables laid out on standard Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development planning principles—looking like “an internment camp,” as one Japanese-Canadian expert put it. The play space was a snowbank in winter and swept with toxic dust in spring and fall. The portables could not withstand winter cold or summer heat, and they warped and cracked and grew mouldy. Hopelessly ill equipped and embarrassing, with the toilet just a partition away from the classroom, they too became unhealthy. Since Ottawa funded the whole system at 20 percent to 50 percent less than what Canadian public schools receive, basic needs went unmet. Attendance and success rates for the local students fell. Teachers and parents alike grew demoralized.

The Attawapiskat youth were Charlie Angus’s constituents, and he describes doing what an opposition MP does: posing questions in the House of Commons, lobbying departments and ministers, organizing press releases and media events. But the government pushed back hard. The commitment to a new school had never existed, the minister declared, the MP was just “in full campaign mode,” community leaders were wasteful if not corrupt. Angus found he could achieve nothing and he uses this memoir to exact some retribution, targeting particularly Chuck Strahl, Stephen Harper’s minister of Indian affairs from 2007 to 2010.

Enter Shannen Koostachin, the heroine of Angus’s story. She was 13 in 2007 and had spent her whole school life in the cold, squalid Attawapiskat portables. When their new school was cancelled, Shannen and her classmates were in grade eight; they wanted to stand up for the younger students behind them. Through letter writing, then YouTube and Facebook, they reached out to contemporaries rather than bureaucrats. Where the adults had been consistently stifled, the kids’ social media campaign went at least semi-viral. Attawapiskat kids just wanted “a comfy school,” Shannen said, and it registered with privileged kids in Brampton, Waterloo, Toronto and Ottawa. They actually identified with aboriginal kids in remote Attawapiskat as their peers.

With support from adult leaders, Shannen and her Attawapiskat friends began to be heard at protests and podiums on Parliament Hill, in schools and union halls, and even in Geneva, where the United Nations was assessing Canadian compliance with the International Convention on the Rights of Children. Before Idle No More or David Kawapit’s Journey of Nishiyuu, a few bright young people on the shore of James Bay had seized the emerging power of social media.

Like most Canadians, probably, I missed the Attawapiskat children’s campaign, but it worked. In September 2014, 14 years after the old school closed, Charlie Angus saw a real elementary school open there: “brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, and a home economics department,” even a gymnasium, built, he writes, by “the outraged energy of young people across Canada.” Shannen Koostachin, however, did not attend. In 2010, making one of those long drives that are central to life in the near north, she was killed in a highway traffic accident, not quite 16. What survived was “Shannen’s dream,” both an ongoing youth campaign in support of aboriginal education and a resolution of principle that Angus shepherded through to a unanimous parliamentary vote in 2012.

Charlie Angus’s account of his part in that campaign is a case study in what an individual MP tries to do in the Ottawa labyrinth. His tribute to Shannen Koostachin offers glimpses of the remarkable talent and dedication that keeps welling up among aboriginal youth, despite all the opportunities still being denied them.

But is Shannen’s dream a fix for the “broken treaty”? Angus evokes the hopeless futility of a system in which a federal cabinet with a thousand other priorities also acts as local school board for every reserve in Canada. Shannen’s dream generated enough leverage to get one school built. But more than isolated successes at opening the federal purse, indigenous communities across Canada need tools to run their own affairs, spending their own money. In a groundbreaking book that Angus cites but hardly explores, the historian John S. Long, himself a former school teacher at Moose Factory and Moosonee, has shown that the northern Ontario treaties were negotiated as land-sharing agreements, not surrenders.1 Let it be accepted that the James Bay Cree own at least a share of the vast resource wealth of their homeland, and suddenly they would be not the poorest of Canadians but among the prosperous, well provided to fund their own schools and municipalities, not forever struggling to manipulate a distant government into acting as a conscientious local council would. Surely it is on title to land and resources, not just the inevitable mismanaging of the schooling promise, that the treaties are truly broken.

As a working MP, Charlie Angus is no doubt right to accept victories where he can find them. Probably no government in Canada today could accept aboriginal title across the treaty lands and survive, and any sweeping Supreme Court of Canada declaration on the meaning of treaties is probably years away. Meanwhile, kids do go to school in Attawapiskat.