Friday, June 20, 2008

Attiwapiskat: Schoolless in the Sub-Arctic

Picture above is from Fighting for a School for Attawapiskat

There are three links that are maintained by members of the community:
Attawapiskat Needs a New School
Attawapiskat's Forgotten Children
Fighting for a School for Attawapiskat

All of these sites have similar contents - thoughtful and well written including a set of photos (easier to view in the first than the second) and a short movie at the second site and the third has photos that can be used by the public, the address for sending letters and a list of schools and organizations that have taken up this cause - its a pretty impressive list.

My take:

Having taught on the James Bay coast this hits pretty close to home. The short version - an Indian Affairs maintained fuel oil main ruptured in 1979 (yes this happened 29 years ago) dumping about 30,000 galleons of fuel into the sandy-silty-clay soil. Oil is hard to clean up. The teacher residences were also effected, but Health Canada ordered those closed and replaced . Contaminant vapours found during studies include xylene, benzene, toluene, and ethyl benzene. Students continued using the school until 2000 when concerned parents pulled their children and the local council voted to close the school. They shared the high school for a while until "temporary" portable classrooms were built. Although, promises to build a new school have been many times by various Indian Affairs ministers - there is still no funding for a new school 8 years later. (summarized from the article in the link)

On top of this resulting in pretty poor learning conditions for students - the failure to deal with the issue has also put the connected high school at risk. Even if the government felt that it was okay for students to go to a school made out of portables which have not stood up well to the rigors of the James Bay climate - failing to deal with the situation has resulted in the old school falling in disrepair (with the library room collapsing in 2005) - resulting to significant damage to the high school when the sprinkler system burst and flooded the high school. Why they haven't taken steps to at least protect the money invested in existing educational infrastructure is beyond me?

In the meantime, there are children who completed their entire elementary education in temporary buildings. What people from down south may not appreciate is that in remote communities school buildings are important multi-purpose buildings in the community - we hosted all kinds of fundraisers in the St. Andrew's gym. There were dances, bingo's, graduations, evening sports, weddings and even the community court days were held there. Every classroom had an outside bulletin board to share their special projects or artwork with the school community. If the students needed to go to the bathroom, gym class, the library, the office or anywhere else - they didn't need to take up educational time to put on coats, hats, mittens and boots. This isn't Toronto - its ruddy cold up there in the winter - often less than -20 C before the windchill - and even my grade 8's needed a few minutes to get ready to go outside. All in all, in a region where students struggle to find reasons to go to school, focus and succeed - I'm sure it really doesn't help to have your school made up of deteriorating portables. Schools should be inviting places where its easy to build community and that are comfortable, warm and safe.

Like Attawapiskat, Kashechewan is now also without a grade school. St. Andrew's (pictured above) was found to have toxic mould following a flood about 3 years ago. Since then, the students have been sharing the high school (St. Andrew's had over 400 pupils when I taught there and I think the high school had about 250). As a result, the school runs two days in one - the elementary students get the early part of the day and the high school students start in the afternoon and go to school much later than the average high school student. This has not had a positive effect on the number of graduates in the community. Next year they are hoping to at least have a set of portables, but who knows how long they will have to wait before a new elementary school is built (the vacant St. Andrew's was destroyed in a fire in the last few years). This means that there is one gym for a community of 1500-1900 people. One building to share for all the community events that might take place - and one can only speculate on how that would affect the community as a whole.

Oh - there are no easy answers to the problems facing communities in the north and many of them can only be found in the communities themselves, but for goodness sakes, one of the best things we can offer, as outsiders, is good school facilities and top rate educators, so that students will have every opportunity to reach their full potential and have the skills to succeed both inside and outside of the community. People complain about the number of folks in these communities that are living on welfare - a good school should be seen as a small investment with big payoffs especially in Attawapiskat where there is actually a good chance for people to get good jobs at the diamond mine should they have an important piece of paper - namely a high school diploma.

Anywho.. there is my rant. The folks in Attawapiskat have both an online petition and a letter writing campaign (directed at the federal Indian Affairs minister - Chuck Stahl (or "Stall" in this case) asking for funding to build a new school for their students.


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