From their Global Voices column at the Toronto Star, Craig and Marc Kielburger describe one native tribe that went to Canada's capital to gain more awareness for First Nation education.
In 2000, J.R. Nakogee School in the remote Attawapiskat First Nation on James Bay was finally shut down after a diesel spill 20 years earlier contaminated the grounds. Shannen and the village’s 400 elementary students were squeezed into nine makeshift portables on the same fouled land. It was meant to be temporary.
It’s one of 515 reserve schools overseen by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the federal department responsible for provincial and municipal-type services for First Nations.
After eight years of government refusals and a few broken promises, students cancelled their Grade 8 grad trip to Niagara Falls and headed to Ottawa to demand a new school. Shannen led them in a rally on Parliament Hill.
They were told there wasn’t enough money—the government had other priorities.
Shannen and her classmates fought back. Their Education is a Human Right Campaign, launched via Facebook and YouTube, inspired the support of thousands of students, teachers and religious groups across Canada. Attawapiskat students became the face of a generation of forgotten First Nations children. Shannen, their voice.
In December of 2009, the government again promised to rebuild the school.
“Nobody knows how the funding decisions are made in Ottawa,” National Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo told us recently.
Despite promissory notes from INAC, he says, there is still no permanent school. The election campaign is cause for delay and even more frustration. And even if party leaders were talking about Attawapiskat, which they aren’t, there are “about 60” First Nations communities that have never had a school, Chief Atleo told us.
Reserve schools receive on average $2,000 less in annual funding per student than provincial schools, according to a study from the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. A fixed funding model covers the basics: teacher salaries and administration. Unlike provincial schools, there’s no money allocated for libraries, science or technology labs, athletic facilities or special education.
Worse, INAC’s regional offices each distribute funds differently, with little consistency and no transparency surrounding the process. And the kids feel the consequences.
More than half of First Nations youth on reserves don’t finish high school; kids in Attawapiskat start dropping out in Grade 5. These communities are often stricken by poverty, crime and high suicide rates.
Chief Atleo calls the policy failings that mire First Nations in poverty the country’s “perfect demographic storm.”