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Author honours legacy of Aboriginal child activist

by Kelly Waterhouse

EDEN MILLS - The tragic circumstances of the remote community of Attawapiskat came as no surprise to author Janet Wilson.

Taking action, Wilson spent the last year writing her latest book, Shannen and the Dream for a School.

The true story chronicles the efforts of Shannen Koostachin, a 15-year-old girl from the Attawapiskat Cree reserve, whose life ended tragically in 2010, the same year she was awarded the Article 12 Award for Human Rights by the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.

“This is a positive book about the power of children; the power of them to have a dream,” Wilson said.

Having published several books about international stories of child activism, Wilson had always focused her research on foreign subjects, until she learned that a Canadian girl had been nominated for the 2008 International Peace Prize, in an effort to fight for the right to an education and a new school.

“What shocked me ... this was the first story that I had researched about a child who suffered an injustice and it happened here in Canada,” Wilson said.

Koostachin, a student of the J.R Nakogee School, began her fight for the human rights of Aboriginal children at the age of 13, after her school had been condemned and permanently closed.

The closure was due to a fuel spill that contaminated the original building in 1979.

“It is appalling, the fact that the children had a school, and it was a beautiful school, but it developed a leak and children were getting sick,” Wilson said.

A makeshift school of portables was built, with a promise from the federal government for a proper school to come. However, the portables smelled badly and were not sufficiently winterized for the northern climate.

In 2007, after three different Indian Affairs ministers, the government reneged on a third  commitment to build the community a new school.

The book begins in 2008, almost 30 years after the toxic spill.

In protest of the lack of a safe, comfortable school, Shannen and her classmates made a YouTube video describing their poor conditions.

The Students-Helping-Students campaign inspired the largest child rights movement in Canadian history.

Koostachin, along with her classmates, took their fight directly to Parliament Hill.

Social media and YouTube helped Wilson research the book after Koostachin’s tragic death in a car accident.

“I was really able to get a sense of her originality from these videos,” Wilson said. “Shannon’s friends were very helpful to me, too. My main concern was what the family would think. Her parents were very pleased with this book.”

Also adding information was Charlie Angus, Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, who launched Shannen’s Dream campaign, an initiative focused on ending the funding discrimination faced by Canada’s First Nation school children.

“Education for native children is underfunded by $2,000 to $3,000 less per child, per year,” Wilson said.

The federal government has now committed to building a new school facility in Attawapiskat by 2013.

“If Shannen and the children had not launched this campaign, this school never would have happened,” Wilson said. “It’s inspiring and it is way more inspiring that this was a 13-year-old child speaking up.”

Wilson has two goals for this book.

“I hope this book gets to First Nation communities. It would be good for the children’s self esteem,” she said.

“More than anything I would like Canadians to understand that there isn’t equality ... there is a problem and like Shannen said, we need to fix it.”

Wilson also hopes to reach politicians. “I would like the people of Indian and Northern Affairs to read it.”

Shannen and the Dream for a School is published by Second Story Press. It is available at The Bookshelf, in Guelph or online at www.janetwilson.ca.

 

December 23, 2011

 
 

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