Calling for Fairness in Aboriginal Education

A lack of adequate resources for the education of youth across the country is a serious issue that has obvious affects on poverty.  Quite possibly this issue is most seriously illuminated in Attawapiskat, Ontario near Timmins, where Aboriginal education is in a dismal state.  But there is hope.  The following is the story of the largest youth movement in the history of Canada.  It’s a  grass root story; a story of self-advocacy.  Now it’s up to us to find partnerships across this country and continue to support it.

Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation spent her school days in dilapidated portables after her school was contaminated with toxins in 1979. After years of parental pressure, with nothing done, the federal government finally placed portables on the playground. The government promised this would be temporary. Instead, Attawapiskat children continued to attend school in these portables with warped doors and a heating system that often failed. That often meant that children like Shannen were more focused on keeping warm than on learning.

After repeatedly being turned down by federal politicians, Shannen was part of a group of Attawapiskat children that led a campaign for a new school in their community. Those students from a small community were joined by students from across Canada demanding equitable education.  Shannen’s vision was that all children should have the right to attend, as she put it, “safe and comfy” schools. This remarkable young woman was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize in recognition of the passion, vision and leadership she brought to the plight of not only her community, but far too many First Nations communities in Canada.

Tragically this past spring Shannen lost her life in a terrible car crash. But Shannen dreamt big. Her dreams were so big they inspired many other people, and her vision of a hopeful future lives on. As Shannen said, “School should be a time for dreams. Every kid deserves this.”

It is, to put it simply, shameful that any child should be educated in facilities that are sub-standard.  Shannen’s community of Attawapiskat is just one example of what has gone wrong with education in First Nations communities. Shannen’s story is not an aberration. This must change.

 The Assembly of First Nations says – “Many First Nations children do not have the most basic learning tools such as gyms, libraries, textbooks, computers and science labs. First Nations schools are funded in a completely different way than provincial schools. The funding approach is outdated, unstable and is not based on the actual number of students in the classroom. On average, First Nations schools receive at least $2000 less per child which accounts for the lack of learning materials.”

Motion 571 has been authored by the local MP Charlie Angus (Timmins – James Bay) which reads in part:

That, in the opinion of the House, the government should:

1. declare that all First Nation children have an equal right to high quality culturally-relevant education;

2. commit to provide the necessary financial and policy supports for First Nations education systems;

3. provide funding that will put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools;

4. develop transparent methodologies for school construction, operation, maintenance and replacement.

Kids shouldn’t have to beg for fairness from our government – and they are not; instead they’re organizing.  It’s up to the rest of us to listen to that and support it. In memory of such a remarkable young woman, the least we can do is to support Shannen’s Dream and Motion 571. This is a non-partisan issue. You can support Shannen’s Dream by signing up as a supporter at and by writing your MP and asking them to vote in favour of Motion 571.

On April 27th 2011 youth and adults from across the country will be participating in a National Day of Action to support Shannen’s Dream of fairness in Aboriginal Education.  Across the country individuals, schools, groups and organizations are invited to lend their support by hosting an event to show their support! 

Write letters, contact your local media, put together community events, and make sure that your voice is heard. Share your ideas for raising awareness and taking action and make Shannen’s Dream a reality.

Get involved, and share your plans for April 27th!  You can also go to to sign an online petition and to see a short documentary on the Shannen and her dream.

*This post was written by Marc Laferriere MSW, RSW – a social worker from Brantford, Ontario, and member of the Canada Without Poverty Board of Directors.  Recently Marc has been nominated for the 2011 JS Woodsworth Award for  anti-racist and anti-oppressive work done in South Western & Northern Ontario, specifically for efforts made to bridge relationships between Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal communities.

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