You have the power to change the world like Shannen did

A new school in Attawapiskat brings Shannon's Dream forward
A new school in Attawapiskat brings Shannon's Dream forward

ATTIWAPISKAT – Special to NNL – On the anniversary of the death of youth leader Shannen Koostachin, here is the eulogy that I gave at her funeral. It is amazing to see how far we have come in the fight for equal education rights since that tragic day.

Wachay. I am very honoured to be here. This is the second eulogy I have given in my life. The first was a week ago at the funeral for my father. However, this eulogy is much, much harder, it is filled with much more grief. When we say goodbye to an adult we can look back at a life of accomplishments and celebrate a life fully lived.

However, when we confront a death such as the death of our dear young Shannen, we are forced to ask the hardest questions – what could have been? What might have been? What should have been?

If Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela had died in a car crash when they were 15 would the world have ever known what it had lost?

With Shannen we had a glimpse of what might have been.

Shannen was a young woman who saw the conditions for children in Attawapiskat and she was on fire to change these conditions. In doing so, she changed Canada. All across the country, people are mourning the loss of this young woman. This is quite an accomplishment for someone who was only in Grade 10. We think of how much more she could have done and we grieve.

But in our sadness we have one great gift – we see the footprints where Shannen was walking. We know where she wanted her community to go. Her death is a terrible tragedy but an even greatest tragedy would be if we didn’t continue walking in the footprints Shannen laid down for us. She told us again and again, “I am not giving up” and so we can’t give up.

Shannen was only 14-years-old when she became the voice of the students movement for a school in Attawapiskat. This movement inspired young people from across Canada. But Shannen would tell you she was always uncomfortable being seen as the leader of the movement. She was proud of this community and proud of her culture that had created so many young people who were so committed to fighting for a school and for an equal chance at education.

You young people should be proud of what you accomplished in that fight and celebrate all the youth leaders that stood up – leaders like Serena (Koostachin), Chelsea (Edwards), Chris (Kataquapit), Solomon (Rae) and so many others.

But what made Shannen special is that she was always able to keep going forward when times were hard. Nobody changes the world when times are easy. Change comes because something is wrong because people are denied their rights. In those moments, you need a leader to point a way forward.

If we remember back to the fight for the school we will remember that there were many dark moments, many times when we seemed to have lost our way.

Do you remember when we went to Ottawa to confront the government? The youth were so full of spirit, so full of the belief that they were going to succeed in getting what every other kid in this country takes for granted – a brand new school.

And do you remember the desolation we felt when the most powerful man in First Nation country, Minister Strahl told these 13-year-olds to their face that they weren’t getting a school?

We were all there… your chief Theresa (Hall), Grand Chief Stan (Louttit), National Chief Phil Fontaine, myself, the education authority, the elders. People were devastated. Some were crying. We didn’t know what to do next.

And then Shannen stepped forward on the steps of the Parliament and spoke the words that electrified people everywhere, “We are not giving up” she said with pride and defiance. There we stood watching a child stepping forward to speak truth to power. This was the moment when the movement never looked back.

Shannen had the gift to keep driving forward regardless of the adversity. She believed so strongly in the need to improve the conditions for her younger brothers and sisters that she wasn’t afraid to speak up, to stand up and to fight. This is why we are so in debt to her.

When Andrew (Koostachin) asked me to offer words today I must admit that I was overwhelmed. I honestly didn’t know what to say. And then I thought of Shannen. She used to ask me at rallies and conferences before it was time to speak, “What should I say? What can I offer?” And I would always say to her, “Shannen, just speak from your heart, you know what to say.”

I believe that Shannen is watching me know laughing that I am the one at a loss for words. And so I will speak Shannen’s words instead. I would like to read to you a letter Shannen wrote when she was being nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize. I think this letter sums up the lessons we need to know from Shannen.

“Wachey… My name is Shannen Koostachin. I am a Mushkegowuk Innanu from an isolated community called Attawapiskat First Nation. My parents are Jenny and Andrew Koostachin. I have three brothers and three sisters. I am fourteen years old. I’ve graduated and finished elementary school called JR Nakogee Elementary School and going to go to school somewhere in down south just to have a proper education. I want to have a better education because I want to follow my dreams and grow up and study to be a lawyer. I have never been in a real school since I’ve started my education.

“I was always taught by the parents to stand up and speak out for myself. My message is to never give up. You get up, pick up your books and keep walking in your moccasins.

“When I was a little kid, I always use to think what a great leader my dad was, Andrew Koostachin. He taught me to look up to the Seven Grandfathers. Love, Respect, Truth, Honesty, Humility, Bravery and Wisdom. Those are called the Seven Grandfathers.

“The other thing my dad taught me about life is to take 3 steps: put God first, because He made you and me; second is family because they give you love; the third is education. School is very important! This why I’m here because children before grade 5 had already lost hope.

There are three other things I would like people to know about me: One, I do not like broken promises. Two, I do not like seeing my siblings going to school in portables – portables are washrooms. They aren’t classrooms. And three, I would like them to know too that I AM NOT GIVING UP.

“I’ve been going to school in these washrooms for eight long struggling years now. I do not want my younger brother and sisters thinking those portables are proper schools.

“Education is important because in the future you’ll have a better life. Because without an education, you wouldn’t have a job or go anywhere at all.

“ I want to tell the children to pray and be strong. To stand up for their rights and never give up because the New School Campaign is growing. There are a lot of supporters around the world.

“I support the other students who are Non-natives. I would help them as well. This is why we are made in the circle. One part of the circle is red, one is yellow, the other is white and the other is black. We are all the same. We keep the circle strong!

“I want Minister Strahl to know that we will not wait for another eight years. He knows that we are sick and tired walking back and forth outside in the cold winter, the cold wind, the cold rain, the hot sun. He knows these things. It’s just that he doesn’t understand. If he did understood he could’ve just give us a school just like that!

“Finally I would tell the children not to be afraid. To ignore people who are putting you down. Get up and tell them what you want… what you need!

“I would tell them to think about the future and follow they’re dreams. I would tell the children to NEVER give up hope. Get up; pick up your books, and GO TO SCHOOL (just not in portables).”

Shannen, I was honoured to know you. You were a mentor to us all.

She was passionate about education. She believed in the youth of this community. I plead with the youth of this community. You have the power to change the world like Shannen did. We look to you and we call on you to help us make this world the place that Shannen believed it could be.

Thank you. Meegwetch.

Charlie Angus MP

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