Attawapiskat Mourns Loss of Student Leader

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It is with deep sorrow that we inform you that Shannen Koostachin, a youth leader from Attawapiskat First Nation, was killed on May 31st in a car accident in Northern Ontario. Shannen garnered national attention when, as a grade 8 student, she helped lead the fight to get the federal government to build a grade school in the isolated James Bay community.

For 8 years children had been attending classes in makeshift portables on a massively-contaminated brownfield.  When the government walked away on a commitment to build the school, Shannen and her fellow grade 8 classmates decided to fight back.

Shannen had a spark and determination that inspired students across Canada – Native and non-Native.  The result quickly snowballed into a massive letter-writing and public awareness campaign. The campaign, which utilized digital organizing tools like FaceBook and YouTube, drew thousands of youth across Canada.

The campaign became the largest youth-driven, child’s rights movement in Canadian history. Shannen was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize.

Shannen was passionate about the need to improve educational opportunities so the young Cree children wouldn’t give up hope.  She could be both fiery and vulnerable when confronting indifferent government officials. Speaking at a conference in 2008, Shannen explained her motivation:

“I would like to talk to you 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.  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.”

In Grade 9, Shannen left her isolated fly-in community to attend school in a provincial high school in New Liskeard. She often spoke of her sorrow in having to leave her family in order to have the opportunity of an education she felt wasn’t available in an under-funded federal school.  Shannen said she was making the sacrifice to leave home in the hopes that her younger siblings would someday have a better opportunity for education.  MP Charlie Angus says Shannen inspired people because she spoke with a mixture of fierceness and vulnerability.

“Shannen just wanted to go to school and live the life any normal kid lives.  But she was unwilling to live with the substandard conditions that existed for school children in Attawapiskat.  So at the young age of 13 she decided to help organize her fellow students to fight back.  It was an honour to know her.”

Angus is working with the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society Of Canada to create a special scholarship for Attawapiskat students in the memory of Shannen Koostachin.  Anyone wanting to help the cause can contact us at: angusc@parl.gc.ca

Charlie Angus MP