The Government of Canada is encouraged and hopeful Shannen’s dream will continue to have a positive impact

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Shannon's DreamTHUNDER BAY – “Shannen’s Dream is now a powerful movement, led by children and for children,” shares Chelsea Jane Edwards, a 16 year old high school student from Attawapiskat. Shannen Koostachin in 2008 wrote, “I want to have a better education because I want to follow my dreams and grow up and study to be a lawyer. For the last eight years, I have never been in a real school since I’ve started my education. For what inspired me was when I realized in grade in grade eight that I’ve been going to school in these portables for eight long struggling years”.

Shannen will not realize her dream, in 2010, Shannen was killed in a tragic automobile accident.

However Shannen’s Dream is alive and well; and it is gathering steam. This past week, in the House of Commons in Ottawa, a motion seeking Members of Parliament to support Shannen’s Dream was debated. The Motion brought forward by Jonathan Genest-Jourdain of the New Democrats has the support of the Conservatives according to Kenora MP Greg Rickford. “I would like to thank the hon. member for the motion and tell him that I support it. Improving the education of students in first nations communities and the conditions in which these children learn must be one of the highest priorities of all of us here in the House. First nations children must be afforded the same opportunities as children who live off-reserve,” stated Rickford.

Timmins – James Bay Member of Parliament Charlie Angus shared, “I would like to tell the House a bit about Shannen Koostachin. George Stroumboulopoulos picked five teenage girls in history who kicked butt. I know that is probably not a parliamentary expression, but George Stroumboulopoulos’ words were even tougher. He picked Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, Mary Shelley, Buffy the vampire slayer, and I am not sure why but my kids say that has a lot of street credibility, and he picked Shannen Koostachin as number one. That is an extraordinary achievement for a child who came from the impoverished community of Attawapiskat.

“Shannen did not want to make history. She might have liked to make history, but she did not set out to be a hero. She wanted to be on a volleyball team. She wanted to have a locker. She wanted to write notes in the classroom. She had a dream that she could have what she called “a comfy school”.

“I once walked with Shannen in Cobalt, Ontario at little St. Patrick Catholic School, a tiny school. It would not even be on the radar of what people think of as a proper school today, but it has a nice, comfy little feel. Shannen kept disappearing on me. I went to look for her and I found her looking in a classroom window. I asked her if something was wrong and she said, “I wish I had my entire life over so I could go to a school like this”. At age 13, she had realized that opportunity was slipping away from her and that might never come back. To see a sense of urgency through a child’s eyes, the sense that if he or she does not get an education, that the child will never be better off, is deeply disturbing”.

Debate on the motion appeared on of those times when members realized that deeds and not words were important. There were impassioned speeches and ideas shared, but there seems to be agreement that having better schools for First Nation youth is a critical move needed in Canada.

Genest-Jourdain said, “We must now ensure that the government’s willingness is transformed into action. We have been hearing lip service for the past 50 years. Clearly, big things are happening now, meaning there is a great interest in aboriginal issues, and I am a prime example of that, this morning”.

Cindy Blackstock, the Executive Director of First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada said, “Shannen’s Dream motion was tabled in the House today and all parties have said they will support it at a vote on Feb. 27, 2012. We should celebrate Shannen, her family and community, all the children and adults who support Shannen’s Dream, Chelsea Jane Edwards, Charlie Angus and all Members who will vote for the motion and then never give up until they implement the motion!”

The debate and votes on the motion are not over. The transcript is long, but worth the time invested to read it:

There are three pages to this piece… the link to each additional page is at the bottom of the article.

Opposition Motion—Education for First Nation children

Mr. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain (Manicouagan, NDP) moved: That, in the opinion of the House, the government should adopt Shannen’s Dream by: (a) declaring that all First Nation children have an equal right to high-quality, culturally-relevant education; (b) committing to provide the necessary financial and policy supports for First Nations education systems; (c) providing funding that will put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools; (d) developing transparent methodologies for school construction, operation, maintenance and replacement; (e) working collaboratively with First Nation leaders to establish equitable norms and formulas for determining class sizes and for the funding of educational resources, staff salaries, special education services and indigenous language instruction; and (f) implementing policies to make the First Nation education system, at a minimum, of equal quality to provincial school systems.

He said: Madam Speaker, first of all, I will be sharing my time with the hon. member for Edmonton—Strathcona. I sincerely hope that my speech here today gets as much media attention as other events that have happened recently.

The presentation of this motion will go along the same lines as the approach I used in my previous speeches. Madam Speaker, I have made a number of speeches in this House since I arrived here on May 2, 2011. My detractors and those who might be interested can look at my record at www.openparliament.org. There are nearly seven pages on my speeches.

It should be noted that analysis of the material on the living conditions in aboriginal communities in the country lends itself well to empirical considerations and highlighting cultural subtleties. As with my previous speeches, I will talk about the basics and address the realities as experienced in the communities and on the streets of my home reserve. This ties in with the oral tradition I come from.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the press conference held by the national panel on first nation elementary and secondary education. To my great surprise, the spokespeople for the organization addressed a number of points that demonstrate culturally relevant progress, thanks to which it is possible to identify the obstacles to educating youth on first nations reserves. Sometimes in my speeches, I talk about cultural relevance and a culturally integrated approach, and those are the aspects I am going to focus on today, since government efforts in the communities to promote school enrolment and completion of education among youth have to be measures that take into account the sometimes difficult realities experienced by young people in the communities. This has to be a grassroots approach.

The panel is to be applauded for the mere fact that, in preparing its report, it focused on the true causes of absenteeism and dropout rates in the communities. During the press conference, the panel members also highlighted one of the greatest strengths of youth living in adverse conditions: resilience. In fact, as I stand before you this morning, I am an excellent example of that resilience. Despite the fact that industry-sponsored media have tried to take me down, I am still here. I want everyone to know that I ate out of garbage cans as a child. This is nothing new to me, and it takes more than that to bring me down.

In my remarks today, I will focus on adversity and resilience because first nations youth encounter obstacles to learning every day. One of the primary obstacles is the cyclical way of life that has gradually become the norm on reserves in Canada. By “cyclical way of life”, I am referring to, in my language, mitsham shuniau, or social assistance benefits. Life in reserve communities today follows the rhythm of social assistance payments.

Teachers in reserve communities can attest to that. Absenteeism is significantly higher on the 1st and 15th of each month because that is when people get their cheques. As I will show, a large proportion of families that depend on federal transfers do not function well on the days the cheques come in. Children in such families suffer the consequences of their parents’ dysfunction and do not go to school because they cannot find food in the morning or get themselves ready. I am talking about young kids, high school kids and elementary school kids.

This factor must be taken into account when implementing education programs adapted to the realities of Canada’s aboriginal communities. Teachers and other stakeholders called upon to work on remote reserves that are truly struggling do not have an easy task. Therefore, it is important that we focus on giving educational institutions the tools they need to meet the needs of these students on their individual journeys. When I talk about their journey, I not necessarily referring to their academic journey, but rather their life journey. This is not the case in all communities, but from my personal experience in the communities of Uashat-Maliotenam and the Lower North Shore, from a very young age, children are regularly exposed to deviant, negative influences and behaviour that would be considered unacceptable by today’s standards, but that is trivialized in those communities because it is so pervasive.

These young people have been brought up in a world that is quite different from that of other young Canadians. Any teachers who answer the call to go to these communities to work—for they are often from outside the community—will have to learn about and be prepared for this reality, as demonstrated by the youths’ behaviour and psyche.

The dysfunctional nature of many aboriginal communities in Canada is partially linked to idleness and dependence on agencies that are part of the band management. For instance, in my community, over half of all individuals who are of working age, that is, 16 and over, depend on Mitsham Shuniau, or money to eat. Basically, that is our word for social assistance. In some cases, band leaders are forced to divert funding to other priorities established by the band council.

There is a case in a community in my riding, a community whose name I will not mention because it is rather infamous. It announced that, due to fiscal restraints, it had to cut the school days at the secondary school to four days a week in order to mitigate the cash shortage. It is the young people who are ultimately going to suffer the consequences. That is a concrete example.

All efforts to implement policies regarding the first nations education system must ensure that the funding allocated to education is used only for the purposes of the specific educational programs.

I will certainly not limit my remarks to students attending on-reserve primary and secondary schools. My arguments also apply to post-secondary students who often have to leave their home communities to pursue their academic endeavours. Those students, like the ones living on the reserves, are entitled to high-quality education that takes into account the added burden on aboriginal youth who want to pursue higher education.

I want to talk about my own experience. I left my home community in early 2000 to pursue my post-secondary education. I then enrolled in the faculty of law at Université Laval. I spent six years in all in Quebec City. Things did not go smoothly at first. I had a hard time adjusting to urban life. I carried the reality I grew up in with me during those years. Young aboriginals who have to study abroad or away from home are dependent on transfers from the band council education authorities. They are on an allowance. Imagine how hard it is to rent an apartment when your only source of income is an allowance from a band council. You can imagine how many doors were slammed in my face. I ended up living in residence. That is just one of the obstacles facing students wanting to pursue higher education, not to mention breaking from their traditional lifestyle and the distance between them and their home community.

I want to clarify that just because my head was leaning over towards my BlackBerry, that does not necessarily mean I was asleep in my seat.

Mr. Greg Rickford (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, for the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and for the Federal Economic Development Initiative for Northern Ontario, CPC): Madam Speaker, I appreciated the speech given by the member opposite. I would like to ask him a question and make some comments. On June 9, the minister and the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Shawn Atleo, announced a Canada-first nations joint action plan designed to improve the quality of life of first nations people. Education was identified as one of the major priorities. On January 24, 2012, a historic crown-first nations gathering took place. Once again, education was identified as a priority by the first nations and the Government of Canada.

My question for the hon. member is a simple yes or no question. Is this the first and most important step in making sure that we have established a relationship and that both parties intend to work together to build an education system in every province that will benefit every first nation in Canada? Is it important to start with that?

Mr. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain: Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the hon. member for his question.

Yes, it is of the utmost importance. In passing, I would also like to compliment my colleague on his French. This is the first time I have ever heard him speak in French.

We must now ensure that the government’s willingness is transformed into action. We have been hearing lip service for the past 50 years. Clearly, big things are happening now, meaning there is a great interest in aboriginal issues, and I am a prime example of that, this morning. However, this willingness must truly be transformed into concrete efforts and inclusive measures to help first nations.

Mr. Mike Sullivan (York South—Weston, NDP): Madam Speaker, my friend from Manicouagan and my friend from Edmonton—Strathcona accompanied me on a visit to a reserve in Ontario where education was its number one priority. Members of the reserve have created a native language immersion school for grade school students and they have built their own polytechnic but the government works hard to make it very difficult for them. They had space donated for the school and the government withdrew the value of that space from the allotment for these children.

The government refused for years to hire a superintendent for their school system. We were told that 8,000 kids are awaiting spaces for post-secondary education and that there are so many on the waiting list that the waiting list is now full. They cannot even put their names on a waiting list for post-secondary education. Would the member please comment?

Mr. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain: Madam Speaker, I would like to thank my colleague for his question.

I cannot speak for other communities, but I can draw on my own personal experience. It is a good sign that so many people want to pursue higher education. However, that is not the case on my reserve right now, where the high school graduation rate is less than half that in other Canadian communities.

I think that the Canadian government should help communities and community members who show a strong interest in higher education, and it should invest money accordingly. Sometimes, these measures manifest as a massive cash injection. I think this is one of those cases. Some situations call for significant additional funding so that aboriginal students who wish to exercise their right to education have the means to do so.

Mr. Jim Hillyer (Lethbridge, CPC): Madam Speaker, the member said that people in first nations communities depend on federal funding for their education, and I understand that they do. Does the member have any ideas that can help them in the future become less dependent on federal funding and become more independent or self-reliant for education funding?

Mr. Jonathan Genest-Jourdain: Madam Speaker, I thank the member for his question.

I have a solution, but it does not necessarily involve pillaging natural resources as the only option for economic development. We have to find other ways to ensure that these programs receive adequate funding.

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