Shannen's Dream monument campaign launched by family member

First Nations woman recalls difficult education experience that inspired her to push for a national monument to Shannen Koostachin, the young Cree activist who fought for better schools for First Nations children.

Jules Koostachin raises Indiegogo funds to commemorate Cree student who fought for better schools

Jules Koostachin has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for a national monument to Shannen Koostachin. (Supplied by Jules Koostachin)

For Jules Koostachin, attending school in inner-city Ottawa was a bit of nightmare.

Too often, she was regarded as just the 'native kid' and even once called the 'savages' daughter.' Not being able to hear properly didn't help.

Koostachin remembers being unable to speak up in class and just shutting down.

"I remember wanting to do well in school, but I didn't know how."

It's that experience that inspired Jules to push for a national monument to Shannen Koostachin, the young Cree activist who fought for better schools for First Nations children. (Shannen's dad and Jules' mom are cousins, but Shannen and Jules never met.)

There are three days left in the Indiegogo campaign, that was launched last month, to raise the money to make it happen.

Shannen's Dream

Shannen was only a child when she publicly challenged the federal government to build a new school for Attawapiskat First Nation, her home in northern Ontario.

At the time, she and other children in Attawapiskat were schooled in portable buildings because the local school had been closed due to a toxic spill.

Attawapiskat finally had a new school built in 2014 because of Shannen's efforts. Unfortunately, she never saw it. Shannen was killed in a car accident on May 30, 2010 near Temagami, Ont. She had been living in nearby New Liskeard so she could attend high school.

Her challenge became known as Shannen's Dream and lives on as a campaign for improved schools and education for indigenous communities across the country.

Upward battle for Jules

It's something Jules, 43, wished she had growing up too.

Originally from Attawapiskat, the Koostachin family moved to Ottawa when Jules was just 4 years old.

Originally from the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, the Koostachin family left Moosonee for Ottawa when Jules was just 4 years old. (Supplied by Jules Koostachin)
Due to a hearing impairment, Jules was quickly labeled with a learning disability by the school system.

She felt like she couldn't ask an adult for help and even recalls school staff making fun of her mom whose first language is Cree.

"[I] failed miserably at school, my mom couldn't really help me with school," says Jules.

Jules' mom attended St. Anne's residential school in Fort Albany, Ont., when she was a young girl.  Her mother's education only went so far.

"I grew up with my mom, who's first language was Cree. I grew up with my grandparents who only spoke Cree. They didn't speak English."

The family made frequent trips to the north to visit her grandparents, something Jules says helped shape her identity and it kept her close to her culture.

Eventually Jules attended Concordia University for its theatre program.

But struggled in the first couple of years.

"I basically had to start from scratch and I had to take ESL classes," Jules laughs, saying that's how bad her writing was.

Hope for the next generation

A mother now, too, Jules wanted to offer more to her children.

Not stopping, she completed her Masters at Ryerson University in documentary media. Jules will also be pursuing her PhD at the University of British Columbia.

Today, Jules shares her story with indigenous youth to hopefully help others overcome their hurdles in life and to believe in themselves.

She says she understands why Shannen wanted more, too.

"The fact that kids in northern Ontario have to relocate and be separated from their family, it's like a blast from the past," says Jules.

"Her motivation was to ensure, kids, any kids anywhere, have access to equal education," says Jules of her younger cousin Shannen.

In 2003, Jules says she had a vision of a national monument of Shannen. She called Shannen's father Andrew for permission. The family granted permission for Jules to proceed.

The monument will be located New Liskeard this coming fall, the same place Shannen died.

According to the Indiegogo campaign, the monument will be approximately 52 inches in height, prior to being mounted on a granite base, and will be cast in bronze. It will be a figurative depiction of Shannen wearing blue traditional regalia.

About the Author

Martha Troian

Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige