ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 33): What the election campaign really should be about
People & Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 33): What the election campaign really should be about

Day 33: In which Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie wonders why a whole generation of Cree kids goes to schools that would embarrass any non-Native school board and provoke the wrath of parents

You’d think a town with a diamond mine would have a school.

A real school, with solid walls, lots of books, and a school community that encourages learning and success.

But not Attawapiskat. There, in an isolated community near the shore of James Bay, the kids go to school in portables. Their old school was contaminated with diesel fuel that leaked from a storage tank in 2000. In a developed country, the mess would have been cleaned up or, at worst, a new school would have been built.

Bureaucrats in Ottawa who send their kids to some of the best public schools in the country, “administer” Attawapiskat. Political leadership is absent. The kids of Attawapiskat have been made to pay for someone else’s carelessness — and for a government that has not cared at all.

Indian-bashers would likely blame the people of Attawapiskat, saying they should fix the problem.

Well, let’s have a look at the place. Attawapiskat has about 1,300 people. They’re James Bay Cree who settled in that area a century ago to fish the Attawapiskat River and work in the fur trade. But the river cannot come close to supporting 1,300 people year-round. Nor can hunting.

The fur trade is long gone.

All of the things that made Attawapiskat attractive to small groups of hunters and fishers now makes the place a trap for the community’s youth and makes life very hard for the adults of the town. There are 360 children in the elementary school system, five members of the community studying at post-secondary institutions.

Freight is shipped in by air, except for a few months during the iron-cold winter, when an ice road is built along the James Bay shore to connect Attawapiskat with the metropolis of Moosonee, 160 kilometres away.

Everything is expensive in Attawapiskat: food, kids’ clothes, gas, propane. Home heating fuel is so expensive that the Cree still burn wood for heat.

Connections to the outside world are minimal, though cable and satellite TV give the Cree a chance to see what’s happening in the rest of the world.

Attawapiskat sits on one of the best diamond deposits in the world. De Beers recently opened a mine, hired some of the people of the town, and has put money back into the community. Still, Attawapiskat is a little piece of the third world sitting, quite literally, on a billion-dollar motherlode.

There is no municipal tax base to support a school. And even if taxes from the village store and the ugly little Indian Affairs houses were enough, the Indian Act does not allow them to be collected. The law keeps the Cree as wards of the state, and when the state does not care, the kids get a second-rate education.

Charlie Angus, the NDP MP who represents Attawapiskat in the House of Commons, has been working with a Native group, Shannen’s Dream, to embarrass the government of Canada into building a real school for the kids of Attawapiskat. Shannen Koostachin fought for a new school, but in August, 2010, the 15-year-old was killed in a car accident.

On Wednesday, kids from Ottawa elementary schools — including my own son, who spoke about the inequity of this sad situation — rallied on Parliament Hill. After the rally, Angus told me the campaign seems to have worked: Attawapiskat will get a new school by 2013.

Now, he says, he will fight for better schools in the rest of the near-North’s isolated reserves.

Angus’ work shows that, despite the cynicism of Canadian politics, there are decent people working to correct real injustices.

This has been a strange election campaign. There’s been a lot of talk about little tax breaks for music lessons and college tuition, while no one mentions the ever-growing number of poor, sick people on our streets. The parties fight over the percentages of tax breaks accorded to corporations while a whole generation of Cree kids, already dealt the worst cards in the deck, go to schools that would embarrass any non-Native school board and provoke the wrath of parents.

But we keep our sins out of sight. Not many of us will go to Attawapiskat, and we’ll be content to ignore the place until an outfit like 60 Minutes or Michael Moore’s production company discover our dirty little secret.

And then we won’t be embarrassed by what we’ve done or failed to do. We’ll be angry that we got caught.