If Shannen Koostachin were alive, she would tell you this story herself. She would describe every corner of Attawapiskat with precision, answer every question with patience and watch your eyes carefully as you listened.
She feared nothing, that girl. Not strangers, not defeat. Travelling far from her home, she appealed to Canadian teenagers for help in the fight for a decent elementary school for the kids of the Attawapiskat First Nation on the western coast of James Bay. Two years ago, at the age of 13, Shannen stood beside a pair of grade-eight friends at a news conference on Parliament Hill. In clear voices, they made their case to the country. Then they marched off to confront the Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC).
Locate Attawapiskat in north Ontario (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)
“When we met up with him, Chuck Strahl told me he didn’t have the money to build a school,” Shannen later told a gym full of high school students. “I looked at the rich room he sat in with all his staff. I told him I wished I had a classroom that was as nice as the office he sat in every day. He told me he couldn’t stay for more of the meeting because he had other things to do. We were very upset. The elders who were with us had tears in their eyes. But when he was about to leave, I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to quit. We’re not going to give up.’”
Surrender was not in Shannen’s vocabulary. Impressed with her leadership ability, her admirers nominated her for the International Children’s Peace Prize, an award presented by Nobel laureates. Shannen wanted to become a lawyer and a traditional jingle dress dancer. When it was time for her to enter high school, her parents, Jenny and Andrew Koostachin, decided that she and her older sister Serena would find better educational opportunities if they left their northern fly-in reserve. The girls travelled south to study at Temiskaming District Secondary School in Temiskaming Shores, Ont.
Shannen called it her first real school. It had hallways, you see. It had a gym and a library. It had no black mould, no mice scurrying over lunch bags, no cracks in the walls begging the winter wind to curl around the feet of shivering kids. This school hadn’t been contaminated and condemned like the old J. R. Nakogee Elementary School in Attawapiskat. It didn’t stink of leaked diesel fuel.
Shannen was happy here; she hardly ever missed a day. Last May, she asked her parents whether she could go south for a holiday with their long-time family friend Rose Thornton, 56, and two pals. Her parents agreed. The trip to Ottawa would reward their daughter’s efforts in grade 10. “I will regret it to my last day,” says Andrew Koostachin. “I have to live with that.” At 10:45 p.m. on May 31, homeward bound on a dark stretch of Highway 11 south of Rabbit Lake Road, the travellers collided with a truck. Shannen and Thornton were killed, and two passengers in the minivan were injured. Shannen was 15 years old.
“I look back and think of her,” a grieving father says quietly. “The Creator gave her to us for a short time so she could teach us. The elders tell me that, and I believe them.” But what was the girl with the sparkling eyes trying to teach us? And what have we learned from her?
Four weeks before Shannen’s death, I flew north to Attawapiskat. I was hoping to find her and to speak to other children and teenagers about their aspirations. For the fourth time, Canada had promised a safe and adequate elementary school to a community that had been denied this simple decency for two decades. Did the kids believe it would happen? Were they excited?
Canada’s north country is the territory of the young. More than a third of the 1,929 members of the Attawapiskat First Nation who still live on their home reserve are under the age of 19. Three-quarters of them are under the age of 35. Kids are everywhere: riding bikes up and down dusty roads, spilling out of tiny, overcrowded houses to jump on old trampolines, racing to the Northern Store in muddy rubber boots.
These children and teenagers, many cousins to one another, belong to the large extended family that is Attawapiskat. They live 500 kilometres north of Timmins, even farther north than their Mushkego Cree kinfolk in Moose Factory, Kashechewan and Fort Albany. Yet the kids would never describe their village as remote or isolated. Attawapiskat is located at the precise centre of their universe. They are its warmth. They are its heartbeat.
The spring of 2010 brought raw pain to the young people of Attawapiskat, but it also revealed their strength. On April 11, Ian Kamalatisit was returning home from the spring goose hunt when his snow machine plunged through the soft ice on the Attawapiskat River. He was 21 and had a one-year-old son named Ethan. Every day after Ian’s disappearance, young searchers pulled on their warmest clothing and went out on the river in small boats to search in the icy wind. Volunteers in mud-streaked overalls and high winter boots walked through rough, tangled bush along the riverbanks. Each morning began with a prayer at the bush camp and a smudging ceremony at a rough shrine made from an upturned boat. Each evening, the exhausted searchers returned to the church hall to report on the territory covered and the deep frustrations of the day.
“I would like to thank each and every one of you for coming out to try and find our young hero Ian,” search coordinator Chris Kataquapit told the crowd. “I am speechless tonight. This is the twenty-fifth day of our search. I know you are tired.”
Each searcher had a turn to speak, sometimes in Cree, sometimes in English. The group talked until almost midnight. A young searcher named Shane had dreamt the night before that he’d found Ian’s body. Today, a bird had come close to his ear, flapping its wings and flying ahead of the boat. Shane and his partner thought they saw Ian’s body but whatever they grabbed for under the ice had slipped away. They were devastated. Two other searchers reported that a bird had circled their heads when they were praying in the woods.
An elder explained that Ian’s spirit wasn’t ready to return to Attawapiskat because the community had more to prove to itself. Try again tomorrow, the elder said. They did. After nearly five weeks, the searchers found Ian on the late afternoon of May 14 and carried him to the riverbank with unforgettable tenderness.
The long search for Ian Kamalatisit was hard enough on the teenagers of Attawapiskat, but their spring ordeal deepened. On April 23, Dakota Nakogee, age 16, died of kidney failure three months after giving birth to her baby Elizabeth. A year earlier, on April 24, 2009, Brendon Kioke, age 15, a popular hockey player who wore the number 22 jersey on the Akimiski Islanders, had died as a result of gunshot wounds. This tragic coincidence seemed to set off a terrible spiral of despair among some young people, who saw a pattern in their grief.
“Youth suicide is a big issue here,” said Theresa Hall, then chief of the Attawapiskat First Nation. “Just in April, we had seven attempts. I think the fact that we are losing other young people — the gun accident and the drowning accident — is encouraging this problem right now.” She also talked about the lethal curse of crystal meth and other hard drugs in a town where police searches at the airport are too costly to be routine, allowing poison to drift into town like smoke.
Death strikes the young in Attawapiskat for too many reasons and for no reason. Dwayne Hookimaw described himself on his online blog as the father of four children. He died on May 15. He was 22. And then Shannen Koostachin died in the car accident two weeks later.
I never met Ian, Dakota, Brendon, Dwayne or Shannen, but I will remember that each one died before Canada kept its promise to them.
Everybody in Attawapiskat was delighted when J. R. Nakogee Elementary School opened in 1976. Named after a respected elder, it was a large, sturdy, state-of-the-art building, a welcome symbol of progress and an infinite improvement on distant residential schools. INAC built the school to the standards of that decade, but sometime after opening day, invisibly and insidiously, diesel fuel began to leak from underground pipes into the soil beneath the school.
How did it happen? An older man approached me in the waiting room of the band office. “You have to go and talk to Fred,” he said. “Listen to what he says.” Everyone else in town offered the same advice and pointed beyond a fenced toxic site to help me find his house. Fred Wesley is a former chief of Attawapiskat and a school counsellor. When I knocked on his door, he told me to meet him in an empty classroom at Vezina Secondary School in 15 minutes.
Built in the early 1990s, Attawapiskat’s high school has always been in better condition than the elementary school, although it would seem small and stark to students and teachers in more modern provincial high schools in southern Canada. Wesley was waiting with chalk in hand beside a blackboard. He explained that the community’s fuel arrives by barge in the summer and is delivered to homes and public buildings for storage. He drew a map of the original elementary school; the teachers’ townhouses; three 400-gallon underground holding tanks for heating fuel for the school and three 200-gallon tanks for the teachers’ housing. Then he drew a nearby pumping station and a web of underground fuel pipes.
“Almost immediately after the school was built, community workers noticed a strong odour of petroleum fuel around the school and the townhouse unit,” said Wesley. “Nobody knew what the problem was.” The pipelines had been buried beneath the school in a narrow strip of soil above the permafrost. As seasons changed, he explained, the ground shifted. Pipelines ruptured and broke in different places, spilling fuel into the earth. Pumphouse equipment had been automated to push new fuel into the holding tanks as they emptied. Fooled by the leaks for years, the pump continued to pour thousands of gallons of fuel into the ground and into trenches, crawl spaces and footings under the school.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, students and teachers at J. R. Nakogee Elementary reported nausea and headaches. Innkeeper Joseph Kataquapit remembers the smell of his grade-seven and grade-eight classrooms and the reaction when he returned home. “I remember my Mum saying to me, ‘Is that you that I smell?’ It was the fumes on my clothes. At the time, she didn’t know what kind of an environment we were in. I remember several days we would have headaches in the school, so many students.”
INAC heard these complaints and, at considerable expense, engineering consultants came to investigate. In 1984, Hydrology Consultants reported the fuel leaks and proposed methods to repair the damage. In 1995, Acres International Ltd. ranked the school property as a “Level 1, High Sensitive Site,” saying that concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons exceeded guidelines and suggesting steps to remove the contamination. In 1996, Bovar Environmental also recommended removing the contaminated soil. With INAC’s approval, a partial cleanup was completed the following year.
The kids remained at their desks through all of this. By this time, INAC had transferred control of education to the Attawapiskat First Nation Education Authority (AFNEA) — to a degree. Chairman John Nakogee explained that while local government has the legal authority to decide on matters such as curriculum and staff hiring, it had no money of its own to build a new school. The federal government continued to make final decisions on all capital spending.
Through two decades, INAC and the Attawapiskat First Nation have spent tens of thousands of dollars to identify the leak problem, but never found the money to fix it.
In January 2000, after a new inspection, AFNEA released another engineering report, from Anebeaaki Environmental Inc. The report described the remaining contamination as “Class 1, Action Required.” Both soil and groundwater showed evidence of benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylenes and TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons from gas and diesel) above acceptable levels for human health. Later, construction consultants checking the building also found five species of mould in classrooms and corridors.
Miriam Wesley, a soft-spoken classroom counsellor, arrived for work at J. R. Nakogee Elementary one spring morning in 2000. “There were parents blocking the main doors, the junior section and senior section,” she recalled. “The next day, they went to the band office with the signs that they made. Too many toxic fumes. Enough was enough.”
The chief and council of the Attawapiskat First Nation and AFNEA ordered the school closed for good in May 2000. Eventually, it would be torn down and the toxic site fenced.
The Decade of the Portables began.
As Shannen Koostachin used to say, this place is not a real school. Eleven rough buildings stand in a narrow strip between the fenced contamination site and an airstrip. In poor condition, the gloomy structures do not resemble anything you could describe as a school.
I arrived at recess time. Kids poured out of the squat classrooms to play tag, kick a ball or climb up on a fire hydrant to play King of the Castle. This barren yard is their playground — no swings, no slides, no monkey bars, no baseball diamond or soccer field. In deepest winter, students pull on parkas, snow pants and boots to walk to the community centre for phys. ed. Their school has no gym.
There is no library, no cafeteria, no art room, no music room. There are no heated corridors between the scattered classrooms. Every day, children and teachers walk inside and outside — inside and outside, inside and outside — through blizzards, ice fog, sleet and thunderstorms. Maintenance workers move a rough wooden ramp to a different portable every year to allow access to a disabled student as he moves through the grades.
For a short time in 2000, children and teenagers attended the Vezina Secondary School in shifts while construction workers built the portable elementary classrooms that were supposed to be temporary. The high school was too crowded for the shared arrangement to continue.
Elementary school principal Stella Wesley and viceprincipal Wayne Potts invited me into their office portable to talk about their own dreams for the 406 students. Confronted with high absenteeism, even among very young children, they want to create a new atmosphere for learning so that kids will love school enough to attend it.
“A lot of these children are very artistic,” said Stella. She would like specialist art and music teachers, an art room, a music room and a drama program. She talked about a “full-fledged library”; a gathering place for encounters between elders and children; a designated Cree language classroom. Potts hopes the new school can offer better computer training. The cramped computer portable has 25 computers, he explained, but only 20 work. Potts also said students would benefit from a hands-on “outdoor education program with outpost camps that are satellite classrooms.”
Wild daydreams? Not really. Even back in grade eight, Shannen Koostachin and her friends knew their demands were reasonable. “We want what every other kid in Canada takes for granted,” Solomon Rae said at the news conference in Ottawa. “A new school, a clean school, a safe school.”
In the past five years, Canada has made the construction of schools one of its signature projects in Afghanistan. Canadians plan to spend millions of dollars to build 50 new schools, with 16 already built and another 27 under construction. So why doesn’t Attawapiskat have a new elementary school yet? It is the closing month of 2010 after all.
You could blame the whirling whims of federal cabinet ministers or the barely discernible movement of the federal bureaucracy at senior levels. You could blame a disheartening pattern of failed negotiations between AFNEA and INAC officials. Local representatives insist on a much larger new school to accommodate a rapidly growing population of children. INAC holds the financial power and the final say on the building plan, and it cites federal budget limitations. Some people might also blame Attawapiskat’s leaders for not making better use of the $1.4 million that the community will receive this year for operations, maintenance and repairs to the elementary portables and the high school, though perhaps they have been too preoccupied with other emergencies — such as the string of suicides attempts and a toxic sewer spill last year that left nearly 90 people homeless — to set up more meetings with civil servants about an adequate school budget.
Blame flies in all directions, with the usual consequences. Adults argue over money. Children wait.
After 2000, three successive INAC ministers — Robert Nault, Andy Scott and Jim Prentice — promised a new school for Attawapiskat. You can read the full chronology of seven years of negotiations on the departmental website. On April 1, 2008, the new minister, Chuck Strahl, informed AFNEA that Ottawa would not finance the new school after all.
John Nakogee recalled his disappointment with some bitterness: “These were promises made by ministers of the Crown. A junior minister announces something in a southern city, and it happens. But on a native reserve, it never materializes. It never comes to pass.”
The frustrated adults and teenagers of Attawapiskat began a public appeal to southern Canadians. Their Member of Parliament, NDP Charlie Angus, whose family had hosted the Koostachin sisters during their first year of high school, posted videos to YouTube and filed Access to Information requests for financial reports and other INAC documents. Those documents revealed that INAC knew in 2007 that the portables were overcrowded and “in need of extensive repair.” With media criticism growing in 2008 — “this is another one that just isn’t going to go away,” a senior communications officer wrote in an internal e-mail — INAC headquarters decided on “hiring a PR firm, Hill and Knowlton, to develop a communications strategy and related products to address the issue.”
To counter the government’s campaign, prominent First Nations advocates such as Cindy Blackstock and Phil Fontaine visited Attawapiskat with reporters and photographers and put a national spotlight on the situation. Shannen and Serena Koostachin and their young friends visited high schools on the outside. “We need your help,” Shannen told students. “You are now the friends of our community.”
Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, the only member of the Attawapiskat First Nation with a Ph.D., and her husband Norbert Witt, a retired university professor, made a film about the school problem and took it to an international film festival in Stuttgart, Germany, in early 2010. The couple made a new and obvious argument. De Beers Canada had just opened the Victor Diamond Mine, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat, after spending about $1 billion on construction. Wouldn’t this first diamond mine in Ontario contribute substantial tax revenue to the province and the federal government? Couldn’t a fraction of that federal money go to the children of Attawapiskat?
Under pressure, Chuck Strahl relented on December 8, 2009. In a speech to First Nations chiefs, he announced that negotiations would begin immediately for a new school in Attawapiskat. These beautiful words zoomed north in a blizzard of phone calls. Someone interrupted the kids’ Christmas concert to announce the wonderful news, to the crowd’s cheers and wild applause.
A jubilant Theresa Hall met with the minister’s senior advisers in Ottawa. “They asked me if I would drop off the media, the campaign that we had made. I said, ‘No, we can’t do that. The non-native people are sticking with us. It is not possible for me to do that.’”
Twelve months have passed since that day.
Miriam Wesley has blunt words about the delay. “Why is it taking so long? Because the government sees aboriginal people as second-class citizens. That’s how I see it…. The way I see things happening in this community, in the last many years I’ve been here, it all connects. The grief. The way we’re treated. It’s just coping day to day.”
In September, I asked Joseph Young, at the time the acting associate regional director of INAC for Ontario, for an update. He explained that discussions with AFNEA remained in the first stage of the capital project imple mentation process. There was no budget yet, but a new elementary school for Attawapiskat was in the Ontario region capital plan. A joint working group had met several times to discuss the school capital planning study, which was not finished. A steering committee would oversee this work. When the study is ready, the next step will be to secure preliminary project approval from Ottawa. “Sometimes that can be a lengthy process,” said Young. Then the project will go out for design bids. Design work could take a year. He estimated that the construction phase could take two years after that.
I asked Young for his best estimate of when the new school would actually open. “It’s a tough one,” he replied. “I’d hate to even guesstimate. The process — I hope I didn’t bore you with this — it takes a long time.” But is there a target date? “No,” he said. “We don’t set up things that way.”
Later, a communications officer for INAC sent me a photograph of the new minister — John Duncan, the fifth minister in a decade — and a formal response from his office. For the record, here is the paragraph verbatim, in crisp Ottawa prose: “The Government of Canada recognizes the importance of a learning environment conducive to assisting students in reaching their full potential. We look forward to continuing to work in partnership with the Attawapiskat First Nation to build a new school which will meet the educational needs of current and future generations of students.”
Before heading home from Attawapiskat last May, I visited a grade-eight class. The students didn’t want to talk about the school promise. They had a river search on their minds, and anyway, visiting reporters had been talking to them about that school since kindergarten. What was the point?
So we talked about music videos and creative writing, instead. Comforting one another, the teenagers of Attawapiskat have created online memorial sites for their lost friends. They’ve posted videos of the funerals on YouTube and added links to songs that express their sad feelings. Many kids continue to post personal messages to Shannen Koostachin, Ian Kamalatisit, Dakota Nakogee, Brendon Kioke and Dwayne Hookimaw, as if their friends were still alive somewhere and could help them.
These haunting messages now number in the hundreds. They speak of shared grief and trauma beyond the imagination of most adults. And yet when the teenagers write about Shannen, they tell the world they’re proud of her.
Remembering her words — never quit — Chelsea Edwards delivered a eulogy at the funeral of her best friend and cousin: “Shannen, whatever I choose to do is because of you. You inspired me and all of us. You proved to us anything is possible.” And then Chelsea turned to her grieving friends and asked them to keep hope alive.
In lingering YouTube videos, Shannen Koostachin will continue her struggle. “My daughter knew what was wrong,” says her father Andrew. “When she was younger, I used to tell her what my grandmother said to me: ‘We are all family of the same Earth, under the same God.’ Shannen believed that, and she stood up for that. Equality all the way.”
Linda Goyette is the author and editor of seven books, including Northern Kids, published by Brindle & Glass. She lives in Edmonton. Liam Sharp is a Toronto-based “people photographer” and a regular contributor to Report on Business magazine.
Photo Club: an exclusive interview with Liam Sharp : Follow photographer Liam Sharp onto the First Nations reserve of Attawapiskat and go behind-the-scenes of his portraits of families in the community.