The Complete Attawapiskat "Letter to the Editor"
A Christmas Gift of Hope
So this is Christmas.
And what have you done?
Another year over
and a new one just begun.
And so this is Christmas
for weak and for strong,
for rich and the poor ones.
The road is so long.
John Lennon scribbled these lyrics on a scrap of paper almost forty years ago. They hold as much meaning on this Christmas Eve as they did for my generation in that moment of time. On December 8th 1980, Lennon was killed, leaving us a legacy of social activism, protest and peaceful dissent. The goal: to make this world a better place. Imagine. And while my generation’s youthful idealism has often been tested over the years, it has been our task to pass the torch on to a new generation of social justice activists.
On December 8th 2009, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Hall learned that her community’s ten year fight for a new school was over. It seemed somehow fitting that the good news came on the anniversary of Lennon’s death. Despair turned to hope. The federal government announced that the children of Attawapiskat were finally “on the list” for a new elementary school, and the residents of her First Nations community on James Bay were ecstatic over the news. Said Hall, “They were overwhelmed, especially with Christmas around the corner.”
Here in Thames Valley, students, their teachers and educational workers were also be celebrating the victory and what it will mean for this tiny First Nations community far to the north of us. Our involvement in this Human Rights issue began over a year ago, when members of District 11 Ontario Secondary SchoolTeachers’ Federation first heard news of their plight and our government’s indifference to it. Our Human Rights, Status of Women and Political Action Committees joined hands to take action. Here is a chronology of those events and the impact it had on all of us:
November 26th 2008: District 11 Human Rights/ Status of Women and PAC sponsored a bus for forty Thames Valley students from six secondary schools and seven teachers to attend an Attawapiskat Human Rights Forum at OISE in Toronto. Our students became part of the largest student led children’s rights conference in Canadian history, as they joined in the fight for a new school for the children of Attawapiskat. It was a Youtube clip describing the plight of this remote First Nations community that had been the catalyst for this youth movement. It was through the internet that young people across Canada first learned that the children of this community had been without a school since it was condemned in 2000, due to toxic contamination from a diesel fuel spill that occurred twenty years before. The Youtube video received massive attention and the movement grew.
The youth conference brought Attawapiskat students together with students from across Ontario. It had a profound impact on all of us. At the microphone, Ontario Regional Chief Angus Toulouse said, “We are asking for what every other Canadian community takes for granted- a school.” Muschkegowuk Grand Chief Stan Louttit concurred, “Canada, I am ashamed you doing this to a people.” Charlie Angus, MP for Timmins-James Bay called the situation, which he referred to as “educational apartheid”, “shameful, immoral, a disgrace”. Most moving of all were the young people from Attawapiskat who spoke. Among them was Shannon Koostachin, an International Peace Prize nominee. “We are the children who aren’t willing to sit at the back of the bus any longer. We want what every Canadian child deserves. We met in Ottawa with Chuck Strahl (Minister of Northern Development and Indian Affairs) who cut the meeting short and left the elders with tears in their eyes. We have been patient long enough. We are tired of broken promises. We are not going away. We are standing up for our rights.”
Your own Thames Valley students stood in solidarity with these young people from Canada’s far north. Among our delegation were students from Chippewa of the Thames, and their teacher who had once taught in aboriginal communities in the far north. She spoke about the appalling conditions of their schools. Our students shared their outrage at the microphone, and talked about the fact that new schools were being built in our home communities of St. Thomas and Woodstock. Oh Canada, how could this be?
March 2009: News arrives that the condemned school building has been demolished, exposing the four hundred children in nearby portables to dangerous chemicals. The noxious fumes meant the students had to be removed from the portables. A state of emergency was declared. Despite repeated urgent appeals, the government announced it had no plans to build a new school in Attawapiskat.
May 22nd 2009: Through the efforts of two OSSTF committees and their hard working chairs, the fight for a school for the “forgotten children” of Attawapiskat came to London. At the invitation of OSSTF, Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus was the special guest at a Student Forum at Beal Secondary School. Students converged at Beal to hear first hand of the appalling conditions that continue to exist for these First Nations students. Angus asserted that, “Education is a fundamental Human Right and this situation is a violation of the UN convention on the Rights of a Child.” Students returned to their home schools galvanized to take action.
Charlie Angus was also a special guest at an Attawapiskat fund-raiser for OSSTF members at the London Music Club. Our Voices for Attawapiskat evening was a sold out event billed as “an evening of song, awareness, activism, fun...and a little shame.” Performers included Maya Two Feathers and vocal music teacher, Sharon Beeler, who spoke proudly of her own Micmac heritage. Our special musical guest, Charlie Angus, was once billed by Peter Gzowski the “poet laureate of northern Ontario.” One of his songs compared the children of Attawapiskat to the diamonds mined nearby on James Bay. His poignant lyrics conveyed to the audience that children should be the most precious commodity in this abundant country of ours.
Charlie’s visit to London was made possible through the assistance of London-Fanshawe MP Irene Mathyssen, who is an OSSTF member and educator. As a teacher, Irene shared our passion for this issue and was there with support at every juncture. Her assistance was invaluable.
June 2009: OSSTF District 11 Human Rights, Status of Women and Political Action Committees launched a system wide secondary school initiative entitled the Student Voices for Attawapiskat Creative Arts Contest. The challenge to students was to deliver a powerful message, in visual or written form, to our federal government, that the children of Attawapiskat deserve a new school. The contest drew hundreds of entries from across Thames Valley, in both the poster and letter category.
October 21st 2009: OSSTF D. 11 Human Rights, Status of Women and Political Action Committees celebrated student winners in the poster and letter writing contest, Student Voices for Attawapiskat. The student winners came from six secondary school in Thames Valley. Committee members and chairs Liz Akano, Cheryl Harper and Fred Moroz hosted the gala evening at the District 11 office. Parents, teachers and representatives for Irene Mathyssen’s office were present for the Awards presentation. The posters displayed that evening were published for broad distribution and all submissions of posters and letters were assembled to be delivered to Chuck Strahl, Minister of Northern Development and Indian Affairs, in Ottawa.
November 23rd 2009: Two Thames Valley secondary students and their teacher, Mr. R. J. Wieczor, travelled to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to act as “Human Rights Ambassadors.” They visited the House of Commons and delivered student letters and posters in person to our federal leaders. The students (from Central S.S. and Clarke Rd. S.S.) were greeted by London-Fanshawe MP Irene Mathyssen and Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus. They delivered all student submissions directly to the office of Chuck Strahl, MP for Northern Development and Indian Affairs. The letters and posters sent a powerful collective message: “Education is a fundamental Human Right. The children of Attawapiskat deserve a new school.”
Here are some excerpts of letters from Thames Valley students to Hon. Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development:
I am a student enrolled in Grade Nine at Central Secondary School and, if there is anything my experience with school has taught me, it is the value of a proper education...The community of Attawapiskat was denied the basic right to a proper education when you chose to rescind the proposal to construct a new school for over four hundred school-aged children...I am asking you to correct the mistake that has been made. I ask you to stand up for what is right, what is fair, and what Canada has always stood for. As a country, we are known internationally for our altruism and hospitality. What does it say to the rest of the world if we cannot provide for those within our own borders? The current situation in Attawapiskat taints Canada’s upstanding reputation and I, along with all the others aware of this atrocity, am losing faith in our government. Please, reconsider your previous decision before the damage to the youth of Attawapiskat...is irreversible. Tom G.
It has recently come to my attention that there are citizens of Canada who are not receiving the education that is rightfully theirs. It is upsetting to hear that you still have not built a school for the children of Attawapiskat. These are children of our beautiful land, and they are as much deserving of an education as anyone else. I believe our education in Canada is what makes us such a wonderful and strong country, and without it these students will never get to experience the power and freedom that comes with knowledge and education. Samantha S.
There are a growing number of campaigns to build schools in Africa’s third world countries. How can we ignore these problems in our own home? The most amazing people who have changed the world for the better, couldn’t have done so without a proper education. We must make education equitable and prioritize the spending of tax dollars on the future of all of our children. Spencer Van L.
The children are the future of Canada, we are all special. One of us might cure cancer or be the next Prime Minister. ALL kids have a right to education, they deserve it...We all depend on our education. You wouldn’t be in your position today if you hadn’t gone to school and worked hard. I am asking that you give the children of Attawapiskat a
chance at education too. Grace T.
I believe that...neglecting the children of Attawapiskat...is wrongful and immoral. It is shameful that you, Mr. Chuck Strahl, would deprive these children of their right to learn. It is a right to be educated under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There is no need for these children to wait any longer for the school you have been promising for the last eight years. Do you ever consider the potential and promise these children could grow up to be?...Cruelty is knowing the dilemma every one of these children encounters daily, knowing they don’t have a school to go to...They should be granted the right to be educated with proper schooling and a healthy environment. Tiffany N.
November 26th 2009: The crisis in Attawapiskat became the focus at the Ontario Federation of Labour conference in Toronto. Shannon Koostachin spoke to the assembly of labour leaders and there was barely a dry eye in the house. OSSTF delegates at the microphone spoke about the need for action from the broader labour community. It was even suggested in the house of labour that we head up north and build a school, as volunteers did in New Orleans after Katrina. Canadian passivity must be replaced by action. Indifference to injustice by the citizens of any country is not benign.
December 9th 2009: The long awaited good news arrives. The children of Attawapiskat will finally have what every child deserves -a school. The Students Helping Students Campaign made a difference in the lives of Canadian children, forgotten by our government. While we know that there are forty other native communities in a similar state of crisis, this small victory is enough to keep that flame of hope alive. Hope for the next generation.
During the Mike Harris era, Maud Barlow addressed an assembly of OSSTF members in London and provided a history lesson on the fight for social justice in Canada, reminding the audience of the many battles waged by past generations. She warned us about complacency and told us about an elderly social activist who said that the fight for social justice was like taking a bath– “Do it daily or you begin to stink.”
First Nations children in Canada deserve the same educational opportunities as non-native students. By joining in this fight, our students have seen that their actions can actually fuel change and correct injustice. It was Margaret Mead who said, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Imagine.
So this is Christmas.
And what have you done?
Another year over
and a new one just begun.
And so this is Christmas.
We hope you have fun,
the near and the dear ones,
the old and the young.
A very merry Christmas
and a happy new year.
Let’s hope it’s a good one
without any fear.
For more information, please contact:
Colleen Canon, OSSTF Federation Services Officer, 519-659-6588 ext. 104 or ColleenCanon@osstf11.com
or at home 519-673-4606 firstname.lastname@example.org