When 12-year-old Shannen Koostachin walked into a school in suburban Toronto in 2007, she wondered why it was so much nicer than her own.
In this school, students learned in bright classrooms. Shannen went to class in a cold portable trailer. Her school didn’t have a playground or a library or a computer lab or a gym. Why did schools in this part of Canada have these things, but not in her community?
Shannen grew up on the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario. Her elementary school was closed in 2000 after it was discovered that diesel fuel had been leaking underneath the building for roughly two decades.
Afterwards, students were moved into portables set up adjacent to the school site, which was still contaminated with a toxic mix of chemicals and mould. The federal government had repeatedly promised the community a new school, which had yet to materialize.
While expert after expert has identified high school graduation as the key to closing the employment gap between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, the quality of education on reserves still lags dramatically. After that visit to Toronto, Shannen wondered why one of the richest countries on Earth couldn’t find a way to educate all its kids equally.
The question would change her young life. She made the difficult decision to move away from her family to attend a better school hundreds of kilometres away. Shannen and other students spearheaded a campaign for better schools on reserves and she quickly became an internationally recognized activist. In 2008, the group gave up a school trip to Niagara Falls to travel to Ottawa and tell the Conservative government that enough was enough.
Chuck Strahl, Indian Affairs minister at the time, told them that a new school simply wasn’t a top priority. Shannen looked Strahl right in the eyes and told him they weren’t going to quit.
And she didn’t. The federal government — which controls funding for aboriginal schools — finally bowed to pressure in 2009, promising a new elementary school would be built in Attawapiskat.
Tragically, Shannen never got to see the finished school. She was killed in a car crash in 2010 at the age of 15. But her dream lives on, as more people wonder: Why can’t we make education in Canada equitable for everyone?
Last fall — for the first time in more than a decade — students started classes in a real school in Attawapiskat.
The people of the community are struggling with a multi-pronged crisis: decrepit housing, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, substance abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, a lack of jobs, and the traumatic legacy of residential schools.
A school is more than a school here. It’s a place to get away from the mould and the overcrowding. It’s a place to get out of the rain.
On a cold day in mid-September, the high school in Attawapiskat let out early after a student set off a fire extinguisher. It was pouring rain, but many of the students didn’t go home. They lingered where walls met, smoking cigarettes, and trying to stay dry. Braving the elements was easier than braving life at home.
When the first peoples of James Bay signed Treaty Number 9 in the early 1900s, they did so in the hope that their children would receive a good education from the Canadian government in exchange for land rights.The treaty reads: “His Majesty agrees 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 to His Majesty's government of Canada.”
To this day, the interpretation of the treaty is a matter of perpetual dispute.
What isn’t in dispute is that education continues to represent the best hope for those born on struggling reserves. According to the 2006 census, 76.3 per cent of university graduates from reserves are employed. For off-reserve graduates, that number rises to 78.4 per cent. Those numbers are nearly level with the 81.8 per cent employment rate for non-aboriginal university graduates.
Those who quit school don’t fare nearly as well.
Just 36.2 per cent of those on reserves who have not graduated from high school have a job. That’s compared with just under 60 per cent for the non-aboriginal population with the same level of education.
In Attawapiskat, it’s not hard to see why so few succeed at school.
It’s raining outside the gymnasium and Holly Nakogee is talking about her dreams.
The 19-year-old Grade 12 student who attends high school in Attawapiskat is an artist. She hopes one day to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. She wants to be a film producer or a video game animator or maybe even a journalist — she’s not sure yet.
She’s leaning toward animator, which makes it all the more frustrating that at the beginning of the semester her school lacks working computers as the result of a flood.
The Cree aren’t known for displays of emotion. Stoicism is a requirement if you want to survive in the unforgiving wilderness around the great bay. Sometimes that stoicism manifests as shyness — many of the young people in Attawapiskat answer questions with silent stares.
But Holly’s face shines when she talks about travelling after university. She is fascinated by ancient Rome and Greece and wants to visit Pompeii to see history frozen in time.
It wasn’t so long ago that Holly was wearing her coat inside the freezing-cold portables, back in the days when she went to school with Shannen. It was just one of many challenges she has had to overcome to get this far in her schooling.
The fourth youngest of 13 siblings and step-siblings, Holly didn’t get her own room until just a few years ago. That was after she moved out of a mould-infested home where she shared a room with two brothers, two sisters and her mom. There were holes in the floor and a large crack under the door that would let snow in during the winter. Electricity was spotty.
She didn’t realize the conditions were the cause of her breathing problems until after she moved out. She had always considered her situation to be normal.
Today, Holly lives in a better home than most on the reserve, but she still doesn’t have anywhere to do her homework.
Chief Theresa Spence says adequate housing is the greatest obstacle to improving education in Attawapiskat. She estimates that 95 per cent of homes in the community are substandard. The water that comes out of people’s taps isn’t drinkable, so the entire community is forced to fill plastic jugs from a single spigot at a water depot.
Holly feels trapped in Attawapiskat. If she gets out for university or college, she doesn't want to come back. But escaping Attawapiskat isn’t easy.
She has already moved south three times in search of a better education but has come home every time
Sick of portables, Holly and her older sister, Dakota, first moved south to Cochrane, Ont., in Grade 7 to attend higher-quality schools. Just two years apart in age, they looked so similar that people would often confuse them for twins. They were inseparable.
When Holly was a toddler, she called her sister Akwao, a mispronunciation of the Cree word for lady. The nickname stuck.
“[She] was like any other older sister” Holly said, “a bully, but also my best friend.”
Their plan to get a better education didn’t go as planned. They lived with their father and his wife in Cochrane, but moved home due to a troubled relationship with their stepmother.
Then her sister got pregnant. After giving birth, she got sick. Holly says her sister went to the hospital in Attawapiskat and was told she probably had a cold. But the cold didn’t go away. Dakota sought treatment in nearby Moose Factory, then in Kingston and eventually at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
Three months after giving birth to baby Elizabeth, Dakota died of kidney failure on April 23, 2010. Later, the family would learn that she had been suffering from lupus, a disease that is rarely fatal when treated. She was 16.
Akwao was gone.
Despite the tragedy all around her, Holly moved to Cochrane again in Grade 10 to take advantage of better textbooks and technology. Things went well academically, but it was just too hard to be away from home. She missed Dakota. She missed her family.
She dropped out, moved home, and didn’t go back to school for a year.
Holly eventually returned to class in Attawapiskat, but for her final year of high school she decided to give Cochrane one last shot.
Once again, calamity struck.
On May 23, 2014, Holly’s beloved niece Alexa was struck and killed by a truck pulling out of a driveway in Attawapiskat. She had been born just three days before Dakota’s death four years earlier.
Holly returned for the funeral, and Alexa’s older sister begged her to stay. Reminded of her own bond with Dakota, she decided she could not go back to school in Cochrane.
Despite everything, she has not given up her dreams.
"We need to end the systematic underfunding once and for all. Once we do that, these communities will start to move ahead in ways that people right now can’t even imagine.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus is about to visit Attawapiskat’s new elementary school for the first time. Walking through the dusty streets, Angus — who once played in a punk band with fellow MP Andrew Cash — is greeted like a rock star. Some people offer rides, others just want to say hello. The fresh Tim Hortons coffee and doughnuts he has brought from Timmins aren’t hurting his popularity. Neither are his regular trips to the reserve.
Shannen’s father, Andrew Koostachin, remembers that some time after Angus became Attawapiskat’s representative in 2004, the NDP MP asked him if any other MPs had ever visited the community.
“MPs? Who are they?” Andrew remembers replying. “Mounted police?”
Angus has made it a point to visit Attawapiskat regularly and has long fought for more funding from the federal government for the First Nations communities in his sprawling riding of Timmins–James Bay. He was an integral part of the campaign led by Shannen and her friends for a new school.
But the completion of the school is more than a political victory for Angus, it is also personal. In 2008, Shannen and her older sister, Serena, moved in with the Angus family so they could attend high school in New Liskeard, Ont.
There’s a rumour circulating that a fox has been spotted in the new school. The talk around town is that Shannen’s spirit has returned in animal form.
“Shannen is in that school for sure,” Angus said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of that girl…. There was something really hard to pin down about Shannen, but she had something. I noticed the first time I saw her. There’s a spirit there.”
Even after Shannen’s death in 2010, Angus continued to push Parliament to adopt a motion in honour of her dream of equal education for all Canadians. Among other things, the motion called on the House of Commons to provide funding to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.” In February of 2012, the non-binding motion was passed unanimously by the House.
Angus is frustrated that the promise of the motion has yet to be realized. He notes that while Attawapiskat may have won a new school, students on the nearby Kashechewan First Nation are spending another year in portables. The high school’s gym is closed because of a leaking roof. He says money has been promised by Ottawa but has yet to arrive.
“Here we are in Canada, where education is so arbitrary, one community now has a beautiful school and another community is making do with fourth world conditions,” Angus said later.
“You cannot educate a generation of youth unless you have a standard, a firm standard, that’s not arbitrary, that’s not based on the whim of a minister or bureaucrat. Every child has to have these rights.”
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt’s office says the government has committed to support the construction of a new roof for the high school in Kashechewan and notes a $20 million investment in education on the reserve since 2005-2006.
At the moment, progress on more sweeping investments in aboriginal education across Canada has stalled.
“It’s just stupid politics” Angus said about the recent collapse of a Conservative deal with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) that would have seen legislation passed providing $1.9 billion in new funds, most of it to be spent in the first three years.
The deal fell apart along familiar fault lines. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative government were willing to hand over more money, but only in exchange for greater accountability and strict adherence to educational standards set in Ottawa. Many chiefs feared the bill would only deepen federal control over education rather than transfer more responsibility to bands.
The government seems to fear that, without accountability, new investments will go to waste. Informed by the memory of residential schools and a belief in self-determination, many chiefs feel less involvement from the government is the only path to success.
And so nothing happens.
The lack of unity among Canada’s disparate First Nations, coupled with Harper’s notorious preference for negotiating with the AFN alone, only made matters worse.
Ultimately, AFN national chief Shawn Atleo would resign amid accusations that he was selling out his own people by supporting the legislation. Harper has placed the failure of the bill firmly on the doorstep of the AFN, and Valcourt’s office says the legislation won’t move forward without the AFN's support.
Angus thinks the federal government is capable of formulating a solution.
“Funding education isn’t difficult to figure out how to do it,” the MP said as he approached the entrance to the new school.
“We figured this out over 100 years ago across the rest of the country, and Indian Affairs still plays games.”
There are countless reports available on whether aboriginal children receive the same funding on a per-capita basis as non-aboriginal kids. According to the Fraser Institute, Aboriginal Affairs estimates that it spends more than the provinces do on education on a per-capita basis in every province except Manitoba. The AFN strongly disagrees.
The government touts its investments. The AFN calls for more funding.
Somewhere along the line, the kids get lost in the calculations.
One teacher in Attawapiskat who has taught in both New Zealand and the United States, says she’s never had so few resources.
“My budget at this school is significantly less than any budget I’ve ever had,”she said. “So [it’s] used to buy primary colours of paint. And then you're tacking on like $1,000 dollars of shipping … which decreases your budget even more.”
Another high school teacher who spoke to HuffPost Canada says that he doesn’t have enough textbooks for his class and that a lack of hiring means many of his colleagues are teaching courses outside their qualifications. Gym class has been cut from four grades to two.
Whether funding is equal or not, it is clear to these two teachers that the result is not equality of education.
After visiting the new school, Angus promises to fight until that equality is achieved, until every First Nations community has a real school like the one Shannen dreamed of.
“Until those children have the same rights as everyone else in Canada, this will not be the country that it was meant to be. So the fight goes on,” Angus said.
There is exactly one teacher of Cree descent in Attawapiskat.
Although there are many teaching assistants from the community, the lack of aboriginal teachers can conjure dark memories. Many still remember when the children of James Bay were taken from their families and sent to St. Anne’s residential school. There, white male teachers sought to wipe away their culture like chalk from a blackboard. Many children suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Survivors remember being shocked in a homemade electric chair and being forced to eat their own vomit.
Unsurprisingly, white teachers can get a rough ride when they first arrive in town.
One teacher, “John,” says he was greeted with shouts of “Go home, whitey” and volleys of rocks. His home was vandalized on a nightly basis. He asked HuffPost Canada not to use his real name.
After one year of initiation, things started to improve. “The second year they say, ‘Oh look, he stayed. He must be alright.’” Today John says he loves living in Attawapiskat and wants to stay as long as he can.
He attributes the community's initial reaction to the legacy of residential schools.
Angus says that, despite the seeing “generation after generation sacrificed in the system,” the people here still want to see the treaty’s education promises fulfilled.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Chief Theresa Spence.
Spence is a divisive figure. Her 2013 hunger strike for a meeting with the prime minister captured the attention of the nation and the sympathy of countless Canadians. Others, however, have accused her of financial mismanagement and even of corruption. In 2014, her partner and former co-manager of Attawapiskat was charged with fraud and theft. Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is currently asking the reserve to repay more than $1.8 million in housing spending that could not be substantiated by a recent audit.
Spence feels that when it comes to both her and her community, the media have a tendency to “twist the story” rather than focus on the facts on the ground. She says she is focused on the future.
“Attawapiskat is always going to be here, and we’re proud people, and our culture has always been our strongest foundation,” Spence said. “We went through so much in our life, especially the residential school, but we’re here to heal and looking forward for the future with positive attitude.”
Walk along the river to the new school, and you’ll see why people stay. At dusk, the light plays off the ripples in the water and shimmers like the diamonds dug up by De Beers down the road. Attawapiskat is a national symbol of the ugliness that plagues Canada’s remote reserves, but it can be a place of great beauty.
“We honour the land because the land is there for us. It gives us life,” Spence said. “[DeBeers has] that phrase, ‘Diamonds are forever.’ So is our land and our culture. It’s forever.”
The chief, who says she’s working on deepening her own knowledge of Cree culture, wants to see more traditional teaching in Attawapiskat and Cree language immersion from kindergarten through Grade 3. She argues, however, that there simply isn’t the funding at the moment.
A teacher said she fears that many of her students have internalized the message passed down from the residential school that their culture is useless. She thinks that is a key part of why so many young people in Attawapiskat don’t expect much from themselves. Why most kids never graduate from high school.
Charlie Angus describes a “cultural reticence” that keeps many Cree from speaking up. It’s something that can make it difficult to succeed in a Western-style classroom.
Rather than participate, many students hide their faces behind hats and hoodies.
John, the teacher, said he has gone as far as to ask his students to respond to questions by shrugging their shoulders, just so he has something to mark.
He wishes he better understood traditional Cree methods of teaching. He fears that for now, Attawapiskat simply isn’t capable of producing homegrown teachers.
“To send somebody to four years of university plus teacher’s college is a huge monumental task and at this point a lot of the students don’t have the fortitude to do it.” John said. “So, for now, it’s going to be white folk teaching the natives again.”
It doesn’t have to be this way.
For nearly 20 years, the Mi’kmaw of Nova Scotia have been running their own school system.
In 1997, a historic tripartite agreement transferred jurisdiction over education from the federal government to the Mi’kmaw and created Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey, an education authority that functions much like a school board.
Unlike a provincial school board, however, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey does not direct the Mi’kmaq schools in the province. Instead, it functions as an advisory body, lending expertise and advice rather than controlling the schools under its purview. It distributes roughly $47 million a year in funding to its member communities.
The agreement requires that First Nations schools in the province provide programs comparable to those in the rest of Canada, ensuring that students’ credentials will be recognized nationwide.
At the same time, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey has put cultural education at the forefront of its efforts and Mi’kmaq language courses are now offered at every high school under its supervision. Last year saw the first class of students graduate from a Mi’kmaw immersion program at Chief Allison Bernard Memorial High School in Eskasoni.
The results have been nothing short of astounding. In 2012-2013, Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey managed a high school graduation rate just shy of 88 per cent, more than double the national First Nations average of roughly 35 per cent.
Perhaps even more impressive is the success Mi’kmaw Kina’matnewey has achieved in helping Mi’kmaw students become Mi’kmaw teachers. Roughly 50 per cent of instructors in the system are now Mi’kmaw.
It’s a crucial piece of the puzzle, one that creates a virtuous circle. The better the system gets, the more Mi’kmaw teachers it produces, and the more Mi’kmaw teachers join the system, the better it becomes at meeting the cultural needs of its students.
And while an isolated reserve such as Attawapiskat faces unique challenges, the Mi’kmaw example illustrates that aboriginal education is not an impossible problem.
If Canada wants more young people like Holly to fulfill their promise, it’s a problem the nation has to solve.
It’s November in Toronto, and Holly is doing her best not to look scared.
Sitting on a streetcar bound for a portfolio seminar at the Ontario College of Art and Design, she tries to get a handle on the directions back to her lodgings. It’s a straight shot back across Queen Street, but the prospect of navigating the big city alone is causing panic.
When the college comes into view, that panic turns to fear.
Moving from a remote reserve like Attawapiskat to a major city for school comes with a steep learning curve.
According to John, three high school graduates left Attawapiskat to pursue post-secondary schooling last year. They have all returned home.
After the seminar, Holly visits a nearby art store and gets lost amid the paints and paper. After buying enough supplies to finish a mural back home, she decides she wants to go to a Starbucks – she has never been to one before.
As she walks past the sweeping facade of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Holly turns and says that one day her art will hang inside the museum.
Back in Attawapiskat a few days later, Holly posts a photo of her kitchen wall to Facebook. With the supplies from Toronto, she has completed a mural she started in 2012 of the family she has lost.
On the right, her sister Dakota cradles her daughter.
On the left, Holly has added her niece Alexa.