Honouring Shannen Koostachin
Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation lead a movement for “safe and comfy” schools and quality, culturally-based education for First Nations children called the Attawapiskat School Campaign.
Shannen knew just how hard it was to learn in an on reserve school that was under resourced. The only elementary school for the 400 children in Attawapiskat was closed as thousands of gallons of diesel fuel contaminated the ground under the school. The federal government put portable trailers on the play ground of the contaminated school as a “temporary school” until a new one could be built. Nine years later there was still no sign of a new school.
Shannen never went to class in a proper school and the portables became more run down over time. The heat would often go off, the children would have to walk outside in the cold to go from one portable to another and the doors were warped. The children of Attawapiskat launched the Attawapiskat School Campaign to reach out to non-Aboriginal children all across Canada to write to the federal government and demand a new school for Attawapiskat.
Thousands of children answered the call and three Ministers of Indian Affairs promised a new school and then broke their promise. The children kept writing. When the Minister of Indian Affairs, Chuck Strahl, wrote in 2008 to say the federal government could not fund a new school, the grade 8 class canceled their graduation trip to Niagara Falls and used the money to send three youth, including Shannen, down to meet with Minister Strahl to demand a new school.
Minister Strahl said the government could not afford a new school. Shannen did not believe him and that she told the Minister she would never give up because the younger children in her community deserve a proper school. She kept her promise. Shannen spoke to thousands of people asking for their help to ensure every child got a good education and a “comfy” school. She was an inspiring speaker because she talked from the heart. She made a compelling speech at an education rights conference hosted by the children of Attawapiskat and attended by 500 other children at the University of Toronto in 2009.
Shannen’s leadership was remarkable and she was nominated, as an ambassador for all the children of Attawapiskat, for the International Children’s Peace Prize given out by the Nobel Laureates.
In May of 2010, Shannen Koostachin tragically passed away in an automobile accident. With the support of her loving family, friends and community, Shannen’s Dream is a campaign named in her memory to make sure all First Nations children across Canada have “safe and comfy schools” and receive a good quality education that makes them proud of who they are.
On June 22, 2012 - the day Shannen would have graduated - construction started for a new school in Attawapiskat. The new school opened in August 2014.
Shannen remains an important role model for all children and young people as she taught us to "get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins."