Christmas came early to Attawapiskat with word that funding for a new elementary school has been approved by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
The decision comes after a high-profile battle by the remote Cree community on the James Bay coast where students have been educated in portable classrooms since their school was closed because of contamination from a heating oil spill.
Residents gathered in the community’s recreation center Dec. 9 to hear the news just conveyed to Chief Theresa Hall in a phone call from Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.
“They were overwhelmed, especially with Christmas around the corner,” Deputy Chief Theresa Spence told the Timmins Daily Press. “It’s all over the town and people are pretty excited.”
The Assembly of First Nations chiefs, who learned of the approval at a meeting with Strahl in Ottawa Dec. 10, issued a release congratulating Hall and Attawapiskat and stating that, at the meeting, Strahl committed to working with First Nations leaders to address the root causes of funding inadequacies that are crippling First Nation schools.
A recent report from Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page estimates there is a gap of $184 million in capital funding between what Indian and Northern Affairs provides and what is needed.
The campaign for a new school in Attawapiskat got into high gear after students themselves got involved. In May 2008, the eighth grade graduating class took the money they had raised throughout the year for a trip to Niagara Falls and went to lobby in Ottawa instead.
“We felt it was important to speak to Minister Strahl and express why it was important for our community to have a new school,” Chris Ataquapit told a news conference at that time. “We have been waiting long enough. We want what every other student in Canada has – a good school.”
But Strahl remained steadfast in his insistence that Indian Affairs could not afford to fund a new school for Attawapiskat.
Using modern tools of communication like the Internet and YouTube, the students got their message out to others of their age, who were outraged by the idea that there should be a separate and inferior education system for First Nations communities.
“This became the largest youth-driven child rights campaign in history,” said Charlie Angus, the member of parliament for James Bay-Temiskaminh.
“Every school board in Ontario was involved, kids from all across Canada were involved; in fact, we were getting calls from schools in the U.S. who were inspired by the children of Attawapiskat.
“The real credit for this project going ahead, I think, lies with the children who were just determined to get what every other kid takes for granted.”
The J.R. Nakogee School, built in 1976, was contaminated by a fuel oil spill in 1979 when on-reserve education was under the control of Indian Affairs. For two decades, children and teachers complained of headaches and nausea. Finally, in 2000, parents withdrew their children and demanded new accommodations.
Since then the children have been educated in a cluster of ramshackle classrooms, moving from one portable to another in minus 45 F winter conditions. Unusually, instead of looking to Indian Affairs for funds, the Attawapiskat Educational Authority arranged financing through a bank loan – but a federal government okay was still needed.
Three successive Liberal Indian Affairs ministers promised approval, but the project never made it onto the department’s capital plan.
In December, 2007 Strahl, a conservative, appointed minister in August, told Attawapiskat leaders there would be no new school. This came as a terrible shock to the community that was expecting materials to be moved up the winter road and construction to begin in 2008.
A published report suggests the new school could open as early as 2013.
Spokesperson Susan Bertrand said $200,000 has been budgeted this year to update the school’s capital planning study.
“Funding is also planned for the design and construction phases for subsequent years,” she said.
“With respect to why this project is going ahead, the effective implementation of Canada’s Economic Action has allowed INAC to review allocations under the First Nations Infrastructure Investment Plan (Major Capital Plan) and reposition school projects, and move forward with new investments.”