CM . . .
. Volume XVIII Number 21. . . .February 3, 2012
Shannen and the Dream for a School. (The Kids' Power Series).
Toronto, ON: Second Story Press, 2011.
206 pp., pbk., $14.95.
Koostachin, Shannen, 1994-2010.
Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.
Review by Myra Junyk.
"Nothing is impossible," her father continued. "If you believe in something, stand up and speak for what you believe."
Shannen felt her bruised heart swell with love as the tears choked in her throat. Her dad had a gentle way of turning a bad situation around to be hopeful. He taught his children to respect the Seven Grandfathers – Love, Respect, Truth, Honesty, Humility, Bravery, and Wisdom. They stood behind them, giving support at all times. "Take three steps in life," he told them, "Put the Creator first, because He made you and me; second is family, because they give you love; the third is education." Andrew Koostachin was respected as a good and strong leader, and at times like this, Shannen understood why.
"I know that today you feel all hope for a new school is gone, but tomorrow I want you to get up, pick up your books, and keep walking in your moccasins."
Shannen Koostachin is 13-years-old when she begins her Students-Helping-Students crusade for a new school in the Cree community of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario. JR Nakogee Elementary School was the "heart of the community" until a fuel spill contaminated the building. As a result, the school children were transferred to drafty and smelly portables which were not conducive to education. The students of Attawapiskat were discouraged, and many dropped out of school before finishing their education.
Shannen's first attempt to change the school situation is a YouTube video describing these injustices. The video pleads for a decent school to right the wrongs of many years of inadequate accommodations because of the fuel spill. Shannen hopes people will see the video on the Internet, but something unexpected happens. Many communities and schools across Canada see the video and actively start supporting the students of Attawapiskat!
In an effort to bring the issue to the attention of the federal government, Shannen and her grade eight classmates journey to Ottawa to voice their concerns about the long-standing underfunding of First Nations schools. Shannen is invited to speak to the demonstrators and the media, and she even gets a chance to meet with the federal government Minister responsible for Aboriginal Affairs. Unfortunately, his response is disappointing. He tells the students that they might possibly get a new school – in 15 years! Shannen is angry, frustrated and disappointed when she tells the Minister, "The children are not going to quit. We are not going to give up until we have justice."
Janet Wilson has written a powerful account of the true story of one Aboriginal girl's fight for safe and comfortable schools for all children. Shannen's efforts got her a nomination for an International Children's Peace Prize. Despite the fact that Shannen died in 2010 in a tragic automobile accident, her fight for equitable education for First Nations children goes on even today. The group called "Shannen's Dream" was founded in her memory. They have written a report about the deplorable conditions of many reserve schools to be presented to the UN Rights of Children Convention.
Although this book is based on a true story, Janet Wilson has "fictionalized" several events of Shannen's life. "I have imagined most of the dialogue, inspired by the recollections of many of the people involved…" (p. 2) Most of the book is a strong manifesto for change, but the last few chapters describing Shannen's uncertainties are not as powerful. The text is written in an accessible manner which will appeal to a wide range of readers. The photographs make Shannen's quest come alive. The quotations at the beginning of each chapter also very effectively express the urgency of Shannen's dream for justice in the educational environment of First Nations children.
Shannen's tragic death left both her family and friends bereft with grief, but the memories, photographs and information they provided to Wilson for this book will keep her memory alive. Shannen Koostachin will be remembered as a courageous young person who stood up for the rights of the less fortunate in her community. Her words can serve as a manifesto for all learners, "I would tell the children…to ignore people who are putting you down. Get up and tell them what you want…what you need! NEVER give up hope. Get up; pick up your books, and GO TO SCHOOL (just not in portables)." (p. 146)
Myra Junyk, a literacy advocate and author, lives in Toronto, ON.
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