Kashechewan students rally on Parliament Hill to plead for new school

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott promised Monday to do everything in her power to relocate a flood-prone First Nation and build a new school after students from the community travelled to Ottawa to plead their case.

Indigenous Services Minister promises relocation and new school for northern Ontario First Nation

Children from Kashechewan sit on the steps of Parliament Hill on Monday during a rally calling for a new school in the community. (CBC)

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott promised Monday to do everything in her power to relocate a flood-prone First Nation and build a new school after students from the community travelled to Ottawa to plead their case.

Kashechewan First Nation, which sits along Ontario's James Bay Coast just south of Attawapiskat, was forced to close its elementary school before the first day of classes this month as a result of mould and other infrastructure problems in the decade-old, temporary portables that make up the school.

The minister made her promise directly to the Kashechewan students while they held a rally on the steps of Parliament Hill.

Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott speaks during a rally on Parliament Hill held by children from Kashechewan First Nation who are calling for a new school. (CBC)

"We hear you and we know that you absolutely have the right to an excellent high quality education," said Philpott, who faced a smattering of heckles during her speech.

"And if your community wants to be moved, I will do everything in my power to make it possible."

Kashechewan sits on a floodplain and faces an evacuation every spring, sometimes for weeks and months at a time. Chief Leo Friday said his community wanted to move to higher ground in 1957, but the government wouldn't listen.

Friday said a two-year, $340,000 site study for a new location for Kashechewan conducted by the current government was nearly completed, but now it was time to act.

"Please correct the problem that you sent to us in 1957 .... We wouldn't be here if our forefathers had been listened to," said Friday during a news conference held before the rally.

Philpott said she was prepared to accept the chief's proposal to set up a new modular school in the interim, and work toward relocating the community and building "the best possible school."

Currently, the community's 400 elementary school students are sharing the high school, attending classes in the mornings while about 200 students in Grades 7-12 attend classes in the afternoon and evening.

A young girl waits for a protest about the conditions in the school in Kashechewan First Nation to begin. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

'Shame on Canada'

Kashechewan band councillor Stephane Friday, 24, responded to Philpott during the rally saying the community's children shouldn't have to travel to Ottawa to speak with the minister.

"It's supposed to be the other way around," he said.  

He said he left the community 11 years ago only to return and see the school situation remains the same.

"It's a shame on Canada," said Stephane Friday.

Arthur Koosee, 13, a Grade 8 student from Kashechewan, speaks during a rally on Parliament Hill. (CBC)

Arthur Koosee, 13, in Grade 8, said he's attended school in the south.

"That school had hallways, a cafeteria and better education," he said.

Koosee said sharing the high school and moving classroom hours will be disruptive for all students.

Grade 6 student Curtis Koostachin, 11, said he was tired of walking in cold, rain and snow from his portable classroom to the gymnasium and to Cree language classes.

Curtis Koostachin, 11 and a Grade 6 student from Kashechewan, stands in a news conference room on Parliament Hill.

"I am so used to broken portables that I can't even imagine what a real school might be like," said Koostachin.

"I have dreams, please let me make them happen."

Philpott was scheduled to meet with Chief Friday and the students Monday evening.

Trudeau faces questions

Kashechewan's school crisis also hit the House of Commons floor during the first question period of the current parliamentary session.

NDP MP Charlie Angus demanded Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commit to relocating the community and building a new school.   

"What is the financial commitment he will make today to make sure he will get those children off that floodplain and into a safe and comfy school?" said Angus.

"Give us that answer now and stop wasting our time."

Kashechewan Chief Leo Friday speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill. Friday said the Ottawa needs to fix a problem dating back to 1957 and move the community to higher ground.

Trudeau said his government was working with the community to find interim and permanent solutions and that an announcement on progress would come later this week.

"The road to reconciliation is a long one, but there are immediate steps we can and are taking," said Trudeau.

"We recognize the need to invest right now."

Chief Leo Friday said his community thought they had an agreement with the previous Paul Martin Liberal government to move the community. At the time, the cost was estimated at about $500 million over several years.

The deal was nixed by the Stephen Harper government which promised $250 million to refurbish homes in the community.

According to figures provided by Angus's office, the federal government spent $57 million on housing and infrastructure and $73 million on evacuations in the community between 2005 and 2014. 



Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him