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Students attend Human Rights forum

TORONTO – Hundreds of students from all over Ontario packed a downtown auditorium to call for a school for a remote Cree community.

Leaders, teachers and teenagers spoke out against what Charlie Angus, the MP for the James Bay-Temiskaming riding, called “educational apartheid.”

Most of all, they cheered the young people of Attawapiskat, of whom about 40 had made the 1,000-km trip south to describe how their remote fly-in community has been fighting for a school for eight years.

“We are the children who have spent our entire lives sitting at the back of the bus,” said Serena Koostachin, 16, “and we are not going to sit there at the back any longer.”

The applause was deafening.

Attawapiskat students have used Facebook and YouTube to build a powerful children’s human rights movement. Their catchy slogan – Each One Reach One, Each One Teach One – comes from ‘Work for Peace,’ a rap by American poet Gil Scott-Heron.

Serena and other Cree youngsters told of being educated in portables since 2000, when Attawapiskat parents pulled their children out, scared of the toxic effect of a 1979 fuel leak that had spilled 30,000 gallons of diesel under the J. R. Nakogee elementary school building.

They told of traveling to Ottawa and being promised a new school by three Indian Affairs ministers, only to have it cancelled a year ago by the current minister, Chuck Strahl.

Life in a school made up of portables means days in classrooms that are cold and draughty in winter, hot and dusty in summer, where emergency exits are frozen shut, where mice run over their lunches, and there’s no library, science lab or playground.

A young girl explained how embarrassing it is to use a washroom that is built within the classroom so every movement is heard.

Another described how one trip to the computer classroom or the gym and back can take an extra 25 minutes to add and remove clothing to face the bone-chilling cold outside. In a week, that can add up to 125 minutes, more than 2 hours of lost study time, she pointed out.

Education was promised in the 1905 James Bay Treaty No. 9 that ceded most of Northern Ontario, the forum was reminded.

Around 400 students and 150 educators from more than 35 schools attended the Nov. 26 forum. Among the sponsors were the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, the Toronto District Catholic School Board, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.

Many southern Ontario students stood to express support for the Attawapiskat students and anger that there’s a separate and inferior school system for aboriginal communities in Canada.

Ontario schools are provincially funded while reserve schools are paid for by the federal government through Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

“This is absolutely appalling,” said student Chad Koski, of College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock, Ontario, noting that a recent addition built onto his school was not nearly as necessary as a new building for Attawapiskat.

Strahl, invited to the forum, responded with a statement questioning Angus’ motives. “Could it be that he’s less interested in real results for aboriginal students, and more interested in an ongoing election-style feud” Strahl asked.

Strahl also announced the imminent demolition of the closed school.

“Only in the world of Indian Affairs is tearing down a building a good solution for education,” Angus commented to the forum.

Meanwhile Indian Affairs officials have insisted that a new school was never promised and the minister has no say in capital expenditures.

It’s a story that’s belied by letters sent to Attawapiskat by previous ministers and INAC officials and even by a second statement released by Strahl Nov. 28 which indicates a new school is back in the cards.

“My officials have been working with the community to find a long-term solution to secure a permanent elementary school at Attawapiskat,” he said

In the statement, Strahl insisted that the federal government has ensured students have a safe place to learn by paying more than $5 million for the portables and expansion of the high school, and almost $8 million for infrastructure upkeep and repairs in the last 7 years.

Such figures are very misleading, said Stan Louttit, Grand Chief of Mushkegowuk Council, of which Attawapiskat is a member. Repairs necessitated by shoddy construction are the main reason for the ongoing flow of funds, he told the forum.

Education consultant Bill Blake told the forum that there’s no comparison between a school in a central building, with portables for overflow – something that’s a familiar occurrence in southern Ontario – and a school completely built of portables.

Students get sick when changing classrooms means going outside in the cold, Grade 6 teacher Mary Jane Okiman said, and discipline suffers because teachers are isolated.

Mona sakaskanemowak was the Cree expression she used to describe how the students should be – but are not. It means content, settled.

Unfortunately, Attawapiskat is not an exceptional example of First Nations education. A list published by INAC shows 58 reserves need new schools, of which 12 are to be addressed in 2008-09.

Equity in education is a human right, the forum was told by Kate Tilleczek, Canada Research Chair in Youth Cultures and Transitions at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Canada was one of 193 countries to ratify the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (the United States and Somalia are the only two that have not ratified).

Tilleczek said the situation at Attawapiskat represents a violation of the developmental health and educational rights of young people. Canada is due for a UN review of how it has discharged its international responsibilities to its children in 2009. ‘We can hold our government to account.”

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall said in an interview that the community intends to take the matter to the United Nations. A lawsuit is also being contemplated.