Students go to bat for Attawapiskat

Fran Côté

Last fall, Teviah Moro, a reporter for the Timmins Daily Press wrote a series of articles on a desperate situation in Attawapiskat, a First Nations community on the James Bay coast. I shared these stories with my Grade 5/6 class at Iroquois Falls Public School. They immediately decided that they needed to do something to help.

Fumes from a leaking diesel fuel tank under the J.R. Nakogee Public School permeated the school, making people sick. In 1999, the school was condemned and its 400 students placed in about 20 “temporary” portable classrooms. They’re still there six years later! They have no gymnasium, no library, no lunchroom and few of the services that we take for granted in our southern Ontario schools.
Our MP, Charlie Angus, came to speak to the class and praised them for their interest. He suggested a letter-writing campaign and reminded them of this quote: “A small drop of ink can make hundreds, perhaps thousands, think.”

Charlie told the students that they have a voice and could be heard. The federal politicians who decide on aboriginal issues, including education, needed to hear about the public’s displeasure with the plight of students in Attawapiskat. We hoped the issue would get more attention and would be resolved sooner.

Soon after Charlie’s visit, we invited Timmins Daily Press columnist, Xavier Kataquapit, who is originally from Attawapiskat, to come to our school. He thanked the students for their efforts on behalf of his community. Then he talked about the building of J.R. Nakogee PS and how very proud the whole community was of their school. For many children the school was the only place that was always warm and had electricity (from the diesel-fed generators) and running water. He said people were very sad to see their well-loved school boarded up, contaminated and condemned, with mushrooms growing out of the carpets and mold everywhere.

Charlie and Xavier’s talks motivated the students to start their letterwriting campaign. They wrote to the MPs on the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Issues and some also wrote to Prime Minister Paul Martin and to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Andy Scott.

Charlie told the Attawapiskat Education Authority about our campaign and their officer, Ignace Gull, thanked us for our efforts.

As promised, Charlie returned to IFPS to collect the students’ letters and distributed them in the House of Commons. “I am inspired by the spirit of today’s young generation. Never let anyone tell you that the world cannot be changed. Never let anyone tell you that young people cannot make a difference,” he wrote.

The students soon began receiving responses from politicians. Mainly, the response was a polite “Thank you for your interest in the situation.” But we expected that. It was the act of writing the letters that was so very valuable, not the response.

The students are very proud of what they have done. The life lesson about speaking up for others when you see an unfair situation is invaluable. Learning that you have a voice and that your voice can be heard is a fundamental lesson in our democratic society. This is putting our social studies program into action.

We like to think of our letter-writing campaign as a pebble dropped in a quiet pool of water. The ripples are gently moving out and who knows how far they will go. We are beginning to get interest from other teachers who wish to participate. Perhaps if enough students write enough letters, Attawapiskat may finally get its new school.

To learn more about this campaign, please visit our website Student Advocacy at www.dsbl.edu.on.ca/ijps/sa. You will find sample letters in French and English, as well as addresses of politicians.

Chi Meegwetch.
(This means 'thank you very much’ in Cree.)

Fran Côté teaches Grade 5/6 French immersion at Iroquois Falls Public School.