Children of the Broken Treaty eye-opening read for Canadians

This week across Canada students will go back to school. Most First Nations students on reserves will return to crowded, sub standard facilities that lack any so-called frills.

New book by Charlie Angus chronicles First Nation fight for right to on-reserve education

Shannen Koostachin, from Attawapiskat First Nation, was one of the young people who emerged as a leaders and spokesperson for the students of the James Bay area. Charlie Angus tells her story in his new book, Children of the Broken Treaty. (Suppled)

This week across Canada students will go back to school. Most will return to modern facilities with labs, gymnasiums, libraries with audio visual equipment and special needs teachers.

Most First Nations students on reserves will return to crowded, sub standard facilities that lack any so-called frills. Some will go to portable classrooms which are the legacy of the department of Aboriginal Affairs.

This is the sad reality for many First Nations' students. Years of under-funding and lapsing much needed resources has resulted in school infrastructure that would cause a revolution if it occurred in a major city.

But for First Nations, especially ones in remote locations, the federal government has practiced a policy of out-of-sight, out-of-mind when it comes to infrastructure and school construction. 

NDP MP Charlie Angus has written a new book, Children of the Broken Treaty, about a young activist's fight for a school in Attawapiskat. (Octopus Books)
In his book, Children of the Broken Treaty, Charlie Angus chronicles the sorry state of affairs in the James Bay lowlands on the Ontario side. Angus is also the NDP member of parliament for the area.

At first I approached his book with a skeptical attitude. After all he is running for re-election. 

But this isn't a typical political tome, ghost written to aggrandize the politician. Charlie Angus places himself as one of the observers and participants. As the local MP he spoke out in behalf of the people at Attawapiskat and other First Nations communities in his constituency. He was also friends with the local leaders and he shared their concerns.

The story is driven by the teenage students of the area schools and Attawapiskat First Nation in particular.

Attawapiskat and the other First Nations located in northern Ontario are signatories to Treaty No. 9. Like all the numbered treaties that were signed between the Crown and the First Nations across the prairies and northern Ontario and the North West Territories, it contains the clause that the government will provide a school on the reserve.

Repeated errors, incompetence

The story of the school at Attawapiskat is a story of repeated errors and incompetence. In 1980 when the new school was being built they had to install a 1,800 gallon fuel tank since all the fuel for the community had to be transported on ice roads during the winter months. In the course of hooking up the line to the teachers' units the line was poorly installed and the shifting muskeg caused the line to break. This resulted in a fuel spill that would eventually contaminate the school.

For years the conditions in the school were unbearable and dangerous. The children and teachers got sick and some had permanent headaches.

The community began to rebel and demand that a new school. Eventually the school was shut down and portable classrooms were installed.

Shannen's dream

Shannen Koostachin, from Attawapiskat, spent her early school years in portable classrooms. Until she moved to Timmons for High School she was never stepped inside a real school.

She was one of the young people who emerged as a leaders and spokesperson for the students of the James Bay area.

Shannen and the students began a letter writing campaign to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Chuck Strahl. They requested a meeting with the minister and instead of making the school's annual trip for graduates to visit southern Ontario and see Toronto and Niagara Falls the students opted to go to Ottawa and meet the minister. 

Shannen Koostachin speaks at the National Day of Action on Parliament Hill in May 2008, a rally calling for better schools for First Nations children. (Courtesy of 8th Fire)
To their surprise Strahl agreed to meet them in his office. The group arrived with heightened expectations because the meeting was occurring on the National Day for Action for Indigenous People. A march was planned and activists from across the country had gathered. The feeling was that Strahl would make a positive announcement to counter the bad publicity coming from the march.

The students gathered in Strahl's office and prepared to make their presentation calling for a new school in their community. Strahl interrupted them and told them that the answer was no, the school wouldn't be built and it wasn't on the list of government priorities.

The students, elders and parents were stunned and heartbroken. They left the minister's office and participated in the march.

But they didn't give up. The students used social media to form alliances with other schools and support groups. The response was overwhelming and eventually the minister had to relent and build a new school.

Sadly Shannen Koostachin was killed in a traffic accident in 2010 while attending high school at North Bay. From then on the drive to get a new school became "Shannen's Dream."

Eye-opener for Canadians

Children of the Broken Treaty is the story of young people's struggle for a better life for themselves and their community.

The Harper tactic to double down and attack rather than negotiate comes off looking mean spirited and out of touch. 

While the story may be an eye-opener for mainstream Canadians it confirms what most first Nations people know or have experienced firsthand.

This is a very important book to understand our struggle. Angus does a good job of setting out the details and behind the scenes manoeuvring that led to the final outcome. While their struggle is by no means over this fall the students at Attawapiskat are attending a real school.

Fixing broken treaties

The fight for schools is only one issue that must be addressed. Other issues such as poor housing, contaminated drinking water, and a high suicide rate continue to haunt the James Bay communities.

I think the answer lies a little further south in the "ring of fire" mining development.

Our people maintain that the treaties were agreements to share the land and its resources. If the Ontario government were to implement resource revenue sharing with the affected treaty nine communities and if affirmative action programs were demanded of the mining companies for training and employment, communities like Attawapiskat could deal with the infrastructure and lifestyle issues and become self sufficient.

All it takes is some political will.


Doug Cuthand is an Indigenous affairs columnist, freelance journalist and filmmaker who lives in Saskatoon. He is a member of the Little Pine First Nation, Sask.