A YouTube campaign that has gained the support of students across Canada for a new elementary school in a remote Cree community prompted Canadian government officials to contemplate retaining a top public relations firm, internal documents show.
The documents, obtained by Member of Parliament Charlie Angus under the Freedom of Information Act, show a shift in government policy after current Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl was appointed in September 2007, and plans for a new school in Attawapiskat First Nation were cancelled.
The young Crees’ online campaign has department of communications officials under pressure, according to the documents.
“It’s been clear all along that they have been involved in trying to spin and misinform everything that had to do with the decision to walk away from the plan to build the school,” Angus said.
Attawapiskat elementary students have been educated in portables since 2000, when the J. R. Nakogee School was closed because of the health effects of a 1979 fuel spill under the structure.
By early 2008, the student campaign had started to bite. Mainstream students were reacting with indignation to descriptions of overcrowded and unsafe conditions in portables designed to supplement a main school building. In this case, the portables are the school.
Letter-writing campaigns focused on the need to replace the poorly insulated structures that buckle and shift in the minus 40 winters of the James Bay coast.
“We’ve been digging into this for weeks now and there is no straightforward, simple answer and it’s not a good story,” Susan Bertrand, an Indian Affairs communications manager based in Thunder Bay, said in a February 2008 internal e-mail.
In March 2008, Information Officer Tony Prudori drew up “proactive media lines” to be fed to inquiring reporters. There was a “key message/positioning statement,” namely that “the education of Attawapiskat First Nations students is important to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.”
It didn’t work. By November 2008, a memo from Bertrand signaled the need for a new approach. “The objective is to have consistent messaging and templates for all products including media lines, Letters to the editor, QP (Question Period in the House of Commons) Cards, etc.”
A December 2008 memo from another official, Greg Coleman, noted that “school issues in Ontario Region are garnering increasing media attention,” and expressed concern that the issues may be raised in other regions of Canada. “For this reason Headquarter Communications is hiring a PR firm, Hill and Knowlton to develop a communications strategy and related products to address this issue.”
In the event, Indian Affairs spokesperson Patricia Valladao said, no contract with the notorious firm was ever signed.
The department’s initial problem was the change in policy. Before September 2007, internal documents indicate a positive attitude to the new school, a project that was proceeding through the approvals process. Then Minister Jim Prentice told the community he would support the expenditure before the Treasury Board. Both previous ministers had also expressed their support.
Attawapiskat leaders had obtained bank financing to build a larger school that would meet Ontario educational requirements, rather than the more meager Indian Affairs standards.
All they needed was Indian Affairs approval. In September 2007, they were told that would not be forthcoming.
The reasons conveyed by Strahl and his officials were varied, even contradictory:
• The school had never been a priority.
• The funding had gone to Pikangikum First Nation where a school had burned down.
• The funding focus had been switched to upgrade First Nations water systems.
• Fuel, labor and steel costs had risen.
• New schools would be prioritized on the basis of health and safety concerns.
Presently, both Health Canada and Indian Affairs insist that there are no health and safety concerns at the school. Teachers worry about fire safety because of doors jammed by ice. That, Bertrand said, is a maintenance issue that the First Nation is funded to take care of.
For some reason, officials pulled back from their early reliance on the adequacy of health and safety conditions at the schools.
By November 2008, commenting approvingly on an appearance by Strahl on national television, Communications Manager Anne Van Dusen states: “I think we have successfully moved away from focusing on the HC (Health Canada) health and safety inspection message.”
But Attawapiskat, remains unsatisfied. It plans to take the education issue to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.