Joining in solidarity for Attawapiskat

By 
  • December 5, 2008
TORONTO - The children of Attawapiskat, Ont., have no school and attend classes in portables where the doors sometimes freeze shut, students wear their winter jackets to class and mice run over their lunches. The dropouts in this small community near James Bay begin as early as Grade 4.

“But I want to also tell you about the determination in our community to build a better world,” grade-school student Shannen Koostachin told a crowd of about 450 students and teachers from Toronto Catholic schools Nov. 26.

The students were gathered in solidarity with aboriginal youth from Attawapiskat for a human rights educational forum held at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Guest speakers included Mushkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit and Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief Phil Fontaine.

The students of Attawapiskat have been waiting for a new school from the federal government for eight years after a diesel fuel leak contaminated their old school building. Although discussions with the government indicated to the community that it would get its school, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl told them in the past year that there was just not enough money. The school would cost $30 million to build.

“The community has said ‛this is the last straw,’ so last January we talked about how to get this to Canadian students,” said Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay.

Getting students involved in supporting the cause through letter writing is important, Angus said. He said some schools are even writing their own campaigns to bring to the attention of the United Nations.

The idea of writing letters to the government on behalf of Attawapiskat has been circulating among Catholic schools for some time now, and was mentioned again at the conference, as speakers encouraged non-native students to help them in the fight for the educational rights of native school children.

Patrick Keyes, a superintendent with the Toronto Catholic District School Board who was involved in the Nov. 26 forum, said the cause is an important one to teach students about.

“For us at Catholic schools, we do need to take a stand, to build a just society. We hear about our aboriginal people but there’s an invisibility to them in a way because they’re out on the periphery,” he said.

In the past year, more and more students and teachers at Catholic schools in Toronto and neighbouring school boards have engaged in letter-writing campaigns and plans are underway to hold another conference similar to the Nov. 26 event, in Ottawa.

Keyes said he hopes to see the school board implement a native studies course within Toronto schools in the next year, especially since there are thousands of First Nation and Metis children living in the city.

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