Kids show way in fight for school
TheStar.com – Opinion – Kids show way in fight for school
July 28, 2008. Carol Goar
It all started in a Grade 6 classroom.
Charlie Angus, MP for the vast northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, paid a visit to St. Patrick School in Cobalt this spring to tell the students about the children of Attawapiskat, who have no school.
The Cree community has been fighting for eight years to get one. It has been promised a new school by three Indian affairs ministers. But last December, the kids’ hopes were crushed when the current minister, Chuck Strahl, cancelled the planned school.
Angus showed the Cobalt students pictures of the windswept reserve and the makeshift portables that serve as its school. He explained that the kids have to keep their coats on inside because it is so cold. He read letters from youngsters in Attawapiskat, asking for help.
One boy piped up: “I’m going to put this on YouTube.”
The idea had never occurred to Angus. Within weeks, kids all over the province were joining the campaign for a new school in Attawapiskat. It grew faster than anything he’d ever seen.
“These kids think on a whole different level than we do,” he says. “They’re using 21st-century technology to fight a 19th-century bureaucracy.”
The 45-year-old New Democrat, a former rock musician, broadcaster and author, is more tech-savvy than most parliamentarians. Early in the campaign, he made his own video, Attawapiskat School Fight (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzLMuW1N50I) and put it on YouTube. It has had more than 65,000 hits. Many kids have linked it to their Facebook sites.
So far, this burgeoning network of young activists has failed to move Strahl. But Angus is confident the kids will win. They care. They’re connected. And they can organize in ways that make a middle-aged cabinet minister’s head spin.
Attawapiskat is not the only First Nation without a school. Angus knows of at least 40 others.
What makes the Cree community’s plight so compelling, he says, is that its people have done everything right. They have prepared studies and site plans and estimates. They have negotiated in good faith with a succession of ministers. They have never given up hope or resorted to militancy.
The reserve once had a school. But it wasn’t built to withstand the frost-heaving of the sub-Arctic muskeg. In 1979, the iron pipe that carried diesel fuel to the school’s furnace sprang a leak. More than 30,000 litres seeped into the ground before the source of the contamination was discovered.
For the next 20 years, the government kept promising to clean up the mess but did little.
The benzene fumes became overpowering. Teachers and children were getting sick. Finally in 2000, most of the parents in Attawapiskat pulled their children out of the school. As a short-term alternative – or so the community thought – the Department of Indian Affairs put up portables.
They are still being used.
Robert Nault was the first Indian affairs minister to promise a new school in 2000. Andy Scott repeated that pledge in 2005. And Jim Prentice assured the community last year he would seek funding for the school.
Now, everything has changed. Strahl says the long-promised school is no longer on Ottawa’s priority list. “The facilities in Attawapiskat are not as high up as some unfortunate schools that are in worse shape.”
Angus doesn’t dispute that urgent needs exist on other reserves. But he considers it wrong that signed agreements with First Nations can be broken on a whim.
And it infuriates him that kids can sit shivering in portables while Indian affairs spends millions of dollars on public relations, advertising and legal services. “Attawapiskat has really become a symbol for the arbitrary and discriminatory approach the federal government takes to education on reserves.”
After one particularly testy exchange, this spring, Strahl advised Angus to take an anger management course.
The tenacious New Democrat has a better idea. He’ll crank up the intensity level with the help of tens of thousands of kids.