Rescuing First Nations Youth: Shannen's Educational Journey and its Lessons

February 29, 2016 - Shannen Koostachin’s personal odyssey is a deeply moving story. Her 2007-10 children’s campaign for a ‘safe and comfy’ school in Attawapiskat First Nation spawned “Shannen’s Dream,” a Canadian youth-driven movement identifying glaring educational inequities and alerting us to the urgent need to improve funding of on-reserve First Nations education.

Six years after Shannen’s passing, hopes are much higher, but many recognized policy experts continue to bang the same old drum.

While reading the latest C.D. Howe Institute commentary, Students in Jeopardy (January 2016) written by Barry Anderson and John Richards, a chill came over me. With clinical precision, the two authors document, once again, the abysmal First Nations graduation rates and the apparent ‘failures’ of what are termed “Band-Operated Schools.”

What, I wondered, had Anderson and Richards learned from Shannen and her youth crusade for First Nations community-based schools?

For those seemingly fixated on documenting the “deficits” and proposing structural reforms in First Nations education, a refresher may be in order.

In 2007, Shannen was 13 and in Grade 8, having spent her entire elementary years in squalid, poorly heated portables. When the proposal for a new Attawapiskat school was shelved, she and her Grade 8 classmates took to letter writing, then Facebook and You Tube. Shannen’s children’s crusade went over the heads of politicians and bureaucrats to get the message across in Ontario elementary schools, union halls, then on Parliament Hill and even in Geneva, Switzerland.

Completing high school, for Shannen and her older sister Serena, still meant moving to New Liskeard, Ontario, hundreds of kilometres from home. 

Tragically, Shannen was killed in a 2010 highway accident on one of her long trips in the Near North, but her dream lived on. Taking up the youth campaign, Ontario MP Charlie Angus pushed for a new school and succeeded in securing passage of a February 2012 House of Commons resolution to “put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools.”  

In September 2014, fourteen years after the old school was closed because of a diesel fuel leak, a new Attawapiskat school opened with brightly lit classrooms, a library, a music room, a home economics department, and a gymnasium.  Without the “outraged energy” of Shannen’s campaign it may not have happened at all.

Staying in school in Attawapiskat still requires incredible persistence. One of Shaneen’s fellow students, Holly Nakogee, attending Grade 12  in 2014-15, is typical of the true survivors.  After losing her closest sister Dakota following childbirth and she had moved south three times for high school, only to return ‘homesick’ each time. In a community where some 95 per cent of the housing is sub-standard and the water isn’t drinkable, graduating from high school can seem insurmountable.

First Nations children are still facing long odds and few if any bridges to a healthier, happier, more fulfilling life.  Looking at those all-too familiar C.D. Howe Institute bar graphs showing 2011 First Nations High School Certification rates of 48.9 per cent for Ontario, compared to well over 80 per cent province-wide, cannot possibly convey all the “burdens” borne by those First Nations students who “fall out” of the system.

The C.D. Howe Institute report “seven step” strategy is presented with the declaratory certainty of the “policy-wonk” at a safe distance from the unfolding crisis among First Nations youth. Their recommendations simply leave me cold: close the funding gap; focus on improved student results; clarify who’s responsible for what, improve Region and ‘Band’ competencies; seek incremental improvements; target program funding; and improve second-level support services.

Such an approach may produce marginal improvement and help to ease the tortured conscience of federal and provincial policy-makers. It does not really get at the root of the problem and does precious little to empower First Nations people themselves.

With a new Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, Dr. Carolyn Bennett, and more generosity of spirit abroad in the land, the time for social reconstruction from the ground-up may have arrived.

Supporting traditional industries, creating sustainable employment, refurbishing housing, and embracing First Nations community-based schooling is a much better ‘whole of government’ approach. In that respect, my own Northern Policy Institute report, Picking Up the Pieces co-authored with Jonathan Anuik (September 2014), offers a much sounder point of departure.

Respecting First Nations traditions and ways of knowing is only the first step. More funding would be a real help, but it’s going to take a generation to rebuild broken trust, foster cross-cultural reconciliation, and engage First Nations themselves in this vitally important work.

By Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, and Senior Education Fellow, Northern Policy Institute. First published in Globe and Mail, February 2016.


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