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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn

Education for First Nations a reconciliation priority


It was a truly impressive event on Parliament Hill — with barely a politician in sight!

I was listening to young James Bay Cree students speaking on why they wanted a safe school for themselves, their sisters and brothers, and other northern Ontario communities. With them were some Ottawa-area grade school students, with their teachers and parents, happy to lend their support. Their conviction and enthusiasm converted me then and there to support the Shannen’s Dream campaign for educational equality and equal school funding for all Canadian children.

The larger story has now been told in Charlie Angus’ book Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream. While the struggle to get a school in an isolated First Nations community is engaging, Angus frames the current situation in terms of ruptured treaty commitments, residential school horrors and ongoing wilful government neglect. The author’s personal knowledge of this history arose as his family housed Shannen and Serena Koostachin when they came south to attend high school. (Angus also served these communities since 2004 as the member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay.)

Reading this book will leave you angered and frustrated, but also better equipped to begin the work of reconciliation with indigenous peoples that our country, and our faith communities, so desperately requires.

Treaty 9, signed in 1905, committed the federal government to provide education for the Aboriginal children of the region. Here began “the long-standing pattern of obstructing treaty obligations under the guise of saving money for the government.” The Department of Indian Affairs obtained the power to remove children from their communities, but then handed responsibility for education to churches. Bureaucrats set the transfer payments so low “it institutionalized the abuse and deprivation that followed.”

St. Anne’s Indian Residential School was established by the Oblates, assisted by the Grey Nuns, in Fort Albany. Sadly, “the Oblates underbid the Anglicans for access to Cree children” since they were given fewer financial resources than granted to the Bishop Horden School at Moose Factory. St. Anne’s has a recognized and dark history of abuse, and was shut down in the mid-1970s. By 1976, Attawapiskat got its own school — but shoddy construction of diesel fuel lines to the school and teachers’ units caused thousands of gallons of leakage. Soon the teachers were getting headaches and their students getting sick from the toxic cocktail.

A new school was promised, but revoked by the Conservative government in 2007. A 2009 study by the Parliamentary Budget Officer reported that of the 803 federal reserve schools across the country, less than 50 per cent were listed in good condition, and 21 per cent had not ever been inspected! Since 1996, when Liberal Finance Minister Paul Martin imposed a two per cent cap on all spending for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, the situation worsened. Angus states, “First Nations students are underfunded between 20 and 50 per cent compared with students in the provincial systems.”

So youth began the Attawapiskat school campaign, with hundreds of southern schools responding to YouTube and social media pleas of Cree students they had never met. I was thrilled to learn that the first southern school to engage was one I attended — Neil McNeil Catholic boys school in Scarboro.

Shannen Koostachin was an irrepressible student leader of “the largest youth-led children’s rights movement in Canada’s history,” according to Dr. Cindy Blackstock. Shannen unfortunately died in a 2010 highway accident, and her photo hangs in an exhibit in Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

While Attawapiskat got their school, the Shannen’s Dream campaign continues, until equality of funding for all First Nations schools becomes a reality.

If Canadians desire real reconciliation with indigenous peoples, we must join efforts to redress the inequities in First Nations education, child welfare funding and other issues. People of faith were justifiably disappointed when the news broke this spring that the almost 50 Catholic entities involved in residential schools fell far short in raising the funds they hoped to contribute to the residential schools settlement. In September, the federal government must reply to the questions Charlie Angus posed in Parliament: how much money was raised of the $25 million target, and how much actually went to school survivors, and how much of the total compensation owed was considered an expense, legal cost, or administrative fee of the church?

Let’s agree with Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Murray Sinclair, who stated, “Education got us into this mess, and education will get us out.”

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.