Shannen Koostachin, Indigenous education advocate, named one of 150 greatest Canadians

As part of our country's 150th birthday celebration, a list has been created of the 150 greatest Canadians. The late Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat, Ont., is on that list. Before her death in 2010, the teen behind Shannen's Dream, fought for better, safer schools for Indigenous students living on First Nation reserves.

Koostachin's advocacy for better, safer schools for aboriginal students turned into 'Shannen's Dream' campaign

The late Shannen Koostachin of Attawapiskat First Nation, Ont., is listed as one of the country's top 150 Canadians. Before her death in 2010, the namesake behind Shannen's Dream, fought for better, safer education for aboriginal students on reserves. (CP/HO- Charlie Angus, MP, Timmins - James Bay)

Shannen Koostachin spoke openly about deplorable conditions she and other aboriginal students had to deal with in their schools on First Nation reserves.

The young activist from Attawapiskat First Nation, Ont., took her message to Parliament Hill in 2009, to demand the federal government provide better, safer schools for students living on reserves.

Sadly, the 15-year old passed away in a car accident in June 2010.

Koostachin's advocacy for better and safer education for aboriginal students was turned into a campaign by her family and friends, known as Shannen's Dream.

That legacy is what earned Koostachin a spot on the list of top 150 Canadians.

The list — which also includes names like Terry Fox and Emily Carr — is to help celebrate Canada's 150th birthday this year.

Shannen's Dream lives on through the First Nations Child and Caring Society, based in Ottawa.
A monument of Shannen Koostachin, was unveiled in New Liskeard, Ontario on October 24, 2015. Shannen started one of the biggest youth-led children's rights campaigns in Canadian history, raising awareness about shoddy conditions and standards in First Nations schools. (Supplied)

Executive director Cindy Blackstock says Koostachin was first confronted with a poor educational environment when she stared kindergarten. At that time, the official school in Attawapiskat was closed down because the ground underneath it was contaminated.

Students instead had their classes in portables trailers supplied by the federal government.

"It was only supposed to be temporary, but by the time Shannen was in Grade 8 these portables had deteriorated so severely that there was ice build up, there was ruins, there was black mould," says Blackstock.

She adds that children as young as Grade 4 and 5 were losing hope and dropping out of school.

"There was a fire in this girl." Blackstock recalls of Koostachin. "She just thought this was absolutely not fair "

Koostachin asked other Indigenous children to write letters to the government demanding change and demanding equal opportunity for all students.

Blackstock remembers when Koostachin met with the Minister of Indian Affairs in 2009 to demand a better school for her community.

Every child deserves better education

When that politician responded with an unsatisfactory response, Koostachin told him she would never give up, because every child deserved better education.

As for the large 150th birthday celebration and being named as a great Canadian, Blackstock says she feels Koostachin would by disappointed that millions of dollars were being spent on a birthday party, when so many Indigenous students are still fighting for proper schools and struggling for basic needs. 

Koostachin didn't advocate for recognition or awards, Blackstock says she did it to help other students.

Blackstock says she feels Indigenous students across Canada are asking for one thing this year as the nation celebrates 150 years.

"They want Shannen's Dream to come true."