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Monday, July 23, 2012

Shannen and the Dream for a School, written by Janet Wilson. Second Story Press, 2011. $14.95 ages

 "Some children are sent to Earth for a special reason - to teach us. Such a child may only be with us for a brief time. When their purpose in life is fulfilled, the Creator calls them to return to the heavens. Shannen was an Okimaw. She taught many people. Her teachings will always guide us. Her spirit will always be there with us."

 In her acknowledgements at the back of the book Janet Wilson says: "I learned about Shannen Koostachin while collecting stories about young rights activists, mainly from poor developing countries. When I read Shannen's Peace Prize nomination, I was shocked that such injustice was happening in my own country. The determination of the children of Attawapiskat convinced me to help raise awareness by telling this story."

She was only 13 when she made the decision to get involved and begin working toward a new school for her community. The old one had been demolished when an oil spill underneath it caused health problems for all those children attending school there. The school had provided a welcome space for everyone in Attawapiskat. Now, the children attended school in old, drafty, odor-ridden portable classrooms. Many refused to attend.

Listen to Shannen's own words about education on her reserve:

"I would like to talk to you about what it is like to be a child who grows up never seeing a real school. I want to tell you what it is like to never have the chance to feel excited about being educated. It's hard to feel pride when your classrooms are cold, and the mice run over our lunches. You know that kids in other communities have proper schools. So you begin to feel as if you are a child who doesn't count for anything. That's why some of our students begin to give up in grade 4 and grade 5. They just stop going to school. Imagine that. Imagine a child who feels they have no future even at that young age. But I want to also tell you about the determination in our community to build a better world. "We are not going to give up." We want our younger brothers and sisters to go to school thinking that school is a time for hopes and dreams of the future. Every kid deserves this." 

Shannen posted a video on YouTube to show what was happening on her reserve. She wanted a decent school for her friends and their community. In the new vernacular, the video 'went viral' and people started demanding change. Shannen and her classmates made the trek to Ottawa to get even more attention for their plight. They had much to say about the underfunding for First Nations schools. The response from government officials was disheartening...15 years ahead, perhaps! Shannen would not quit.

In this fictionalized and well-written account of Shannen's quest for justice for Aboriginal schooling Janet Wilson gives voice to the issue. The young activist's untimely death in a car accident did nothing to stem the fight for a school in her home community. 'Shannen's Dream' was initiated to honor her memory, and findings concerning reserve schools were presented to the UN Rights of Children Convention this past winter. When will it change? What must be done to bring about that change? 

The captioned photographs found in each chapter, and the gathered quotes that underlie each chapter heading help readers understand the issues and give life to Shannen and her friends. The text of the book is followed by a historical note, a timeline, and a useful glossary that also includes meanings for the Cree words used in telling Shannen's inspiring story.

She left a legacy; her friends and family continue in her honor to find a way to make a difference.

 Here is a recently published timeline for their new school:

"January 17, 2012 - The project team evaluates submissions from nine general contractors. Six of the general contractors meet the qualification criteria.
January 25, 2012 - Design phase is complete. The 5,808-square-metre new school is designed to accommodate 540 students from Kindergarten to grade 8 and include a gym with a stage, a library, Cree culture and language facilities, computer labs, a home economics room, an industrial arts classroom, a music room, and a cafeteria.
January 26, 2012 - The Attawapiskat First Nation commences the tender period for the general construction contract.
February 7, 2012 - A pre-tender site visit with pre-qualified general contractors is conducted.
February 22, 2012 - Tender bidding closes.
March 2, 2012 - The Attawapiskat First Nation issues a letter of intent to Penn-Co Construction Canada (2003) Ltd. indicating its intention to hire the contractor to construct the new school."     

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