Back to School with The Wolf is Back

September 5, 2017 by Robert Priest

It's the first day of school for many kids across Canada, but what does that mean when your school is underfunded, uninspiring, and dangerous? Children's poet and musician Robert Priest joins us with a tale of his tour of  The Wolf is Back, which features a poem about, and took his travels to Attawapiskat First Nation. Through the work of two 14-year-old activists, Serena and Shannen Koostachin, Robert shares the impact they've made on this community.

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I have visited schools to do poetry readings and workshops for children and young adults for most of my adult life – about forty years now. I've been all over Ontario, but this year I was determined to get to the new First Nation school Kattawapiskak Elementary in Attawapiskat. There was a previous elementary school in Attawapiskat, but because cost-cutting inferior materials were used in the construction of the pipes that fed the diesel fuel underground and into the school furnace, the pipes cracked in the subzero temperatures of the James Bay winter and began to leak into the tundra beneath the school. This went on for years. The Department of Indian affairs continually denied there was any problem, while, for years, cancer-causing benzene infiltrated the school’s atmosphere. Eventually, an independent lab evaluated the school and the soil beneath it and declared it a Class-1 hazard to human health. Soon after it was torn down.

But instead of building a new school on cleaner ground the Department of Indian Affairs’ solution was to float in some decrepit old portables and position them around the edges of the brown site where the old school had been. The portables were leaky and inefficient and could not be kept warm in winter. Worst of all the brown site right beside the portables was continuing to gas off and still the young Cree children were breathing in a cocktail of chemicals well known to be hazardous to human health.

After fourteen years of this two activist sisters, Serena and Shannen Koostachin, instigated a campaign that eventually, through dissemination of Youtube videos, reached fellow students all across Canada. Children from schools of all kinds – religious schools, public schools, private schools – aghast at the treatment of fellow Canadian citizens took up a letter writing campaign which, eventually, resulted in a new school being built in Attawapiskat.

Tragically Shannen did not live long enough to see the construction of the new school. But upon entering its front door newly arrived children are greeted by a stained glass portrait of her, dressed in full dance regalia, which peers down from the heights of the front lobby. Here they shuck off the boots so necessary for walking on the mud or dust roads which intersect the reserve and make their way to well-lit and well-stocked classrooms watched over by dedicated teachers.

When I arrived at Attawapiskat, I had been advised that I should be prepared for my poetry and songs to get little or no reaction from the students. To my joy, however, I found those sweet children as animated and responsive as any children anywhere. There may yet prove to be difficulties in the construction materials that were used to build the school but certainly for now it is solid and beautiful and as Shannen required – comfy.

I wish this was the happy ending to this little account. But in truth the school in Attawapiskat is still a rarity. There continue to be many, many First Nations communities all across Canada have either a substandard, unhealthy school or no school at all. This is all part of the legacy of the policy of assimilation which sought to "kill the Indian in the child." Certainly this policy is one of Canada's greatest shames, and one whose continuing effects need to be rectified with great dispatch before the epidemic of child suicides continues to grow. I'm currently in talks to do a little tour of the schools and communities on the Ontario side of James Bay and I am looking forward to visiting Attawapiskat again. I can't explain it but I kind of fell in love with the place. And I certainly fell in love with the people.


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Thanks so much to Robert for sharing this story and a link to the Shannen's Dream initiative, and to Noelle Allen at Wolsak & Wynn for making the connection. The Wolf is Back is available now.


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