I was about 13 when they moved in. A year or two older than me, they traveled hundreds of kilometers from home, leaving their family behind and saying goodbye to friends. Now they were living in a strange town, with a family they had never met, for one reason: to go to high school.
They must have been transfer students from a third world country, coming to Canada to get a quality education, learn English and make a better life for themselves, right? Or child refugees, their parents sending them away to give their children an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise.
No. They were Canadians, and their family had lived on this land far longer than mine.
Their home was a First Nations Reserve in the northern reaches of our very own province. With limited access and limited resources, they didn’t have a high school near by. Every year, moms and dads in their town would kiss their children goodbye, sending them to live with other families just so they could continue their education past grade 8. That was in the 80’s, but this is still the norm for northern communities throughout Canada, in the year 2015.
The lack of high school level education on reserves and in northern communities isn’t the worst of it, although I wish it was.
As proud to be a Canadian as I am, I can’t get past the fact that our country has seen fit to fund the education of elementary-age children on reserves at a dramatically lower rate than the rest of our kids. That means that in addition to not having local access to high schools, many children go without safe, healthy classrooms and without basic school supplies, like adequate textbooks, current libraries, access to technology, and more.
Just the other day, a monument in honour of Shannen Koostachin was unveiled. Shannen, as a 13 year old girl from Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, challenged the government to make good on their promise of building an elementary school for the children there.
You see, in 1979, there was a diesel fuel spill that caused health issues and resulted in the long-overdue closure of the school in Attawapiskat in 2000. Despite the government’s promises to rebuild, children continued to learn in rapidly deteriorating portables that became infested with mice and mold. One promise after another was broken, but Shannen and her friends refused to back down.
In 2008, on the steps of Parliament Hill, Shannen spoke bravely and honestly about her dream for all children to have access to a safe education.
And then finally, in 2014, the government made good on its promise to build an elementary school and Shannen’s dream became a reality. Sadly, she didn’t live to see it happen herself.
In 2010, at the age of 15, Shannen died in a car accident in the community she had been sent to for high school. She never had a chance to see what her persistence and courage had achieved.
But others have taken up her cause, and continued to push for equal access to basic education across Canada. They call it Shannen’s Dream, and they won’t stop until all children in Canada have access to adequate, safe and healthy schools.
And, just like they did, we need to change it.