Shannen Koostachin honoured with statue in New Liskeard, Ontario
Passionate young advocate for First Nations education died before seeing 'Shannen's Dream' come true
She's on her tiptoes and gracefully still. Her arms are at her sides, her fringes hang low. She looks like a butterfly in her traditional regalia. And she's surrounded by butterflies too.
The bronze monument, located in New Liskeard, Ontario, honours the life of Shannen Koostachin, who died in a car crash in June 2010 not far from town.
She was attending high school there because there wasn't a high school in her isolated Cree community of Attawapiskat.
Shannen was a passionate advocate for equal education for First Nations children on reserves.
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"It is a good reminder for Canadians to understand that a lot of First Nations kids, indigenous kids, have to leave their communities to go to school," Shannen's cousin Jules Koostachin said.
The idea for the monument came to Jules over three years ago.
"The entire family have been involved ever since. The process has been really long, trying to raise the funds and we have [succeeded]," Jules said.
Shannen started a national campaign, advocating for the right to a quality education for First Nations children living on reserve.
Koostachin's community of Attawapiskat had been on a waiting list for a new school for more than a decade, despite the elementary school being condemned.
It was replaced with portable trailers that were cold and mice-infested.
Tired of learning in shoddy conditions, Shannen and her Grade 8 classmates took the issue to social media — sharing their struggle with Aboriginal Affairs on Facebook and Youtube.
Her effort was called the biggest youth-led children's rights campaign in Canadian history.
She travelled to Ottawa and often spoke at rallies about the appalling conditions of schools in First Nations. Shannen won support of thousands of young Canadians and labour organizations, many of whom wrote letters of support and sent them to parliament.
In September 2011, a year after Shannen's death, NDP MP Charlie Angus introduced Shannen's Dream in parliament. The motion, voted in unanimously by the House of Commons, called for the government to support First Nations schools at the same level that provincial schools are supported.
A new school was approved for her community, but it was not built in time for Shannen to see it.
Jules Koostachin sought out artist Tyler Fauvelle for the project. He jumped on board right away.
Fauvelle said he was inspired by "her beauty and her strength and determination."
Fauvelle said the work was challenging for him, because she was still so vivid in people's memories.
"She had to be recognizable but also had to embody the spirit of her message," Fauvelle said.
'It was an emotional reminder that this proud young activist, admired by so many, had also been a daughter, a sister, a friend.'- Tyler Fauvelle, artist
Last week Fauvelle showed off his work for the first time at an unveiling ceremony. While he's attended several unveilings, this one was different, he said.
"There wasn't a sound. No one spoke. Then I saw all the tears, and the quiet smiles. It was an emotional reminder that this proud young activist, admired by so many, had also been a daughter, a sister, a friend."
More than 5 years have passed since Koostachin died while traveling to try get an education. Her family struggles with the loss every day but feel better knowing she won't soon be forgotten.
But she said, with the two per cent cap on First Nations education funding, there is still a big gap in equality of education. She hopes that will change with the the new Liberal government.
"I am hopeful with Justin Trudeau that he stays true to his word, and things actually change for indigenous youth and children," Jules said.
"That we actually have equitable access to schools, education, that definitely is the message behind Shannen's work. There is a shift happening but I believe there is still a long way too go."