The following book review is brought to you by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada's Northwest Territories Chapter (IPAC-NWT).

As part of its monthly Book Review Forum, the IPAC NWT Regional Group is pleased to present the following review for the month of April:

This book is a story within a story. At its heart it is a story about a girl who simply wanted to go to school like other kids in Canada – in a functioning building with adequate supplies and enough teachers. Wrapped around this tale is the larger, darker history of Treaty 9, residential schools, and their legacy of neglect and abuse that dogs the Aboriginal people of Canada to this day.

Author and NDP Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, Charlie Angus, is a passionate chronicler of the ongoing struggle for equal education on First Nation Reserves in Ontario. Here he focusses on the Attawapiskat First Nation and the story of teenager Shannen Koostachin’s remarkable crusade to improve conditions for education in her community.

Mr. Angus begins by exploring the roots of the problems that led to Shannen’s campaign. He relates the history of schooling in the James Bay region after the signing of Treaty 9 in 1905. One of the rights afforded in the Treaty was provision of teachers, buildings and equipment to the schools of Treaty 9 children.  Historical documents reveal a deliberate campaign on the part of the federal government of the day to solve “the Indian Problem” through an education system that would “kill the Indian in the child” using tactics of cultural isolation, spartan living, hard work, and corporal punishment.  Thus began the residential school system in northern Ontario.

The system was the brainchild of Duncan Campbell Scott, then the head of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs and the federal representative at the signing of Treaty 9.  Two residential schools were built near James Bay.  Both were run by religious organizations that were massively underfunded by the federal government.  One of these, St. Anne’s, became infamous for its particularly poor treatment of children that were resident there. In the James Bay residential schools, death rates of children ranged from 40 to 70%. Many who survived the schools returned home unable to speak their own language and without the skills needed to live in the bush.

The residential schools did not have the intended effect of assimilating Indians into the larger Canadian society. Angus asserts that by the 1960s the federal government pursued another method of erasing Indian identity – fostering out Indian children into white households.  As the residential schools closed, many children were apprehended by Children’s Aid Societies, and instead of being sent home they were sent south to foster families.

The day school system in James Bay communities began in the 1970s.  These, too, were underfunded and continued to be neglected right into the 1990s, when Shannen Koostachin started school in Attawapiskat.  The original school building was condemned in 2000, and thereafter the school was comprised of ‘temporary’ portables that were falling apart.  There were not enough textbooks; the heating was faulty (the book shows a photo of kids and teachers wearing coats and hats during lessons); and it was infested with mice.  Most seriously, it was situated on a site contaminated by spilled fuel that smelled so strongly that teachers and students routinely suffered from headaches and neurological disorders.  A new school building that had been promised to the community for years was finally scheduled to be built in 2007.  However, weeks before construction was to begin, the project was abruptly cancelled and the funds were diverted to other issues.  At this point Shannen, now in Grade 8, began her campaign.

Shannen Koostachin emerged as a youth leader of a grassroots campaign for the right of the children of James Bay to get a quality education.  She was part of the Students Helping Students campaign, which opened the eyes of southern Canadians to the gross inequalities faced by students on reserves.  Children, teachers, parents and labour unions across Canada mounted pressure on the government to improve education conditions for reserve children.  The campaign climaxed with a delegation of James Bay youth and elders presenting a petition at the Assembly of the United Nations and the effects of the campaign carried forward into the culmination of other Aboriginal protest movements.  For instance, the Idle No More campaign was in part fuelled  by the frustrations surrounding decaying, dangerous, and in some cases, non-existent infrastructure on reserves,  and even more so by the frustrations of dealing with a government bureaucracy that was evasive and even mean-spirited.

In 2014, 15 years after the original school was condemned, Attawapiskat got a brand new school, complete with lots of natural light, a gymnasium, and a small library.  Tragically, Shannen did not live to see this.  She left the community in 2009 to attend high school in New Liskeard.  In 2010 she was killed in a car accident on the highway to North Bay.

This easy-to-read and well-researched book affected me deeply and I highly recommend it. The attitudes of the day are chilling.  The detailed documentation of recent events is hard to dispute. I also reflect that we are fortunate in the Northwest Territories to live within comprehensive land claims rather than the reserve system.  We can only hope that the current government’s emphasis on respectful relationships with Aboriginal peoples can begin to repair some of the damage.

This review was authored by Vicky Johnston, who is a Senior Policy Analyst with the Government of Canada, living in Yellowknife, NT. This review was prepared for Northern Public Affairs magazine by the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) NWT Regional Group.  Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Government of Canada or IPAC.