In Shannen Koostachin's short life, she developed a reputation across Canada as a passionate fighter for the rights of native children.
Born in an isolated reserve on the James Bay coast, Shannen was the third of six children of Andrew Koostachin and Jenny Nakogee. "Shan Shan" was a playful and mischievous kid. But from a young age she was passionate about going to school. The only problem was she had never seen a real school. In Attawapiskat, children attended classes in makeshift portables sitting on a badly contaminated brownfield.
For 10 years the community had been fighting to get a school. In November, 2007, the government walked away on a commitment to build a grade school. This is when Shannen and her Grade 8 classmates decided to fight back.
Using tools such as Facebook and YouTube, their Education is a Human Right campaign spread like wildfire. Within months, their heartfelt plea had inspired thousands of students, teachers and church groups across Canada.
The children of Attawapiskat became the face of a generation of forgotten first-nation reserve children and Shannen became their voice. She had moxie. She challenged government ministers and spoke at rallies and youth conferences. At 14, she was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize. In December, 2009, the government finally agreed to build a school.
In Grade 9, Shannen left her fly-in community to attend a non-native high school in New Liskeard, Ont. It broke her heart to leave home but she believed that young leaders had to become fully educated.
Shannen maintained a deep connection to her Cree language and culture. She was thrilled when her high school asked her to be lead dancer in their annual powwow. She never got the chance. Just days before, she was killed in a car accident along with mentor and friend Rose Thornton.
Shannen's death caused a wave of grief, not just in her home community, but among education leaders, labour activists and students across Canada. Her community is hosting a youth gathering this weekend to celebrate Shannen's life and to build leadership skills for James Bay youth. And the Shannen Koostachin Memorial Fund has been set up to help northern students.
Writing at 13, Shannen gave this simple message: "I would tell the children not to be afraid, to follow their dreams. I would tell them to never give up hope. Get up, pick up your books, and go to school (just not in portables)."
Charlie Angus is the MP for Timmins James Bay. Shannen lived with his family for a year while going to school.
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