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Children power campaign for a new school in Cree community

TORONTO - Children from across the land are joining the fight for a new elementary school in Attawapiskat, an isolated Cree community in northern Ontario where students have been taught in portable classrooms for eight years.

Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, who calls the conditions for Attawapiskat students ''a national disgrace,'' said the campaign has taken off. ''It's way beyond us logistically, we can't keep track,'' he said.

He's been mobilizing Canadian children by visiting schools and through a YouTube campaign that registered more than 25,000 hits within a month.

The Attawapiskat video (www.youtube.com/watch? v=QzLMuW1N50I) tells the story of how the J.R. Nakogee School, built in 1976, was contaminated by a fuel oil spill in 1979. For two decades, children and teachers complained of headaches and nausea from the fumes. Finally, in 2000, parents pulled their children out and demanded new accommodation.

The Department of Indian Affairs provided eight portable classrooms. The parents campaigned for a new building. Unusually, rather than looking to the government for the funds, the Educational Authority arranged financing through a bank loan. The project still needed Indian Affairs approval, but it was endorsed by three successive Indian Affairs ministers, Angus said.

Then, in December 2007, Chuck Strahl, appointed minister in August, stepped in and canceled the project. Indian Affairs spokesman Susan Bertrand said in an interview the financing arrangement wouldn't have worked because the department only provides ministerial loan guarantees for housing, not schools

News of the cancellation, conveyed Dec. 18, was a terrible shock, said school principal Stella Wesley. The community had been told last fall that materials would be moved up the winter road and construction would begin in 2008, she said.

''We had no idea; we hadn't any indication that they wouldn't build this school, that they would wait another five to eight years. It would take three years to build it, another 10 years before we go into a new school.''

Bertrand said she wasn't aware of a plan to begin construction at Attawapiskat this year.

Conditions are tough in the James Bay coast community, located 55 miles from a massive diamond mine being built by DeBeers. Wesley described how in temperatures as low as minus 40 Celsius (minus 40 F), the children walk to another portable that's the library and computer room, and go a longer distance to use the gymnasium in the community sports complex.

Each time, they have to bundle up and unbundle, cutting into subject time. Sometimes they have to keep their outdoor clothes on in class because the winds coming off James Bay cut through cracks in the walls and whistle under the doors.

Wesley said that while portable classrooms are not unusual in mainstream society, they are always associated with a central school building that has resources and where the school community can congregate. At J.R. Nakogee, there is no such building - just a portable with three small offices for a staff of 52.

This means that in addition to a deficient learning environment, the community spirit that is an important school function is also lacking. Teacher turnover is high.

Angus said he designed the video and the Web site it links to (http://attawapiskat-school.com) so any sixth-grade child could find all the resources to get involved and write a letter to Strahl, create a PowerPoint presentation, or sign a petition. The response has been overwhelming.

''There are schools that are taking it up without us knowing,'' he said, having just learned that 47 schools in eastern Ontario had joined the cause.

Children may be the focus of the campaign, but their elders are also getting involved, including members of the Ontario Public School Boards' Association and the Canadian Auto Workers Union.

In January, in a House of Commons exchange with New Democrat Angus, Conservative Strahl detailed expenditures of $3.2 million for the present accommodation for Attawapiskat children. ''There are no health concerns in that particular school,'' he insisted.

Angus retorted that the portables are a fire trap - and in any case, health concerns aren't the only criteria for evaluating the adequacy of a school. ''We're not talking about buying holding pens for cattle; we're talking about the most fundamental right that every child in this country should enjoy: the right to go to a good school.''

In an interview, Angus noted that when he visited the school, the fire doors wouldn't open, so the children would have to run down the narrow hallway in an emergency.

Angus said that Indian Affairs returned $109 million to the treasury last year - capital funds that weren't spent.

That, Wesley said, left the community ''disheartened'' at the thought that tax cuts, a feature of the last Conservative budget, were preferred to aboriginal education.

Strahl told the Toronto Star that a $13 million expenditure to replace the Pikangikum First Nation school, lost to fire last summer, derailed the Attawapiskat project.

Bertrand denied claims that there has been a freeze on new schools for First Nations. However, she was unable to say how many schools might proceed this year in Ontario. ''We continue to review our budget,'' she said. ''Because of our funding pressures, it's not known at this time.''