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Native teen's posthumous plea for education finds traction in Parliament

Chelsea Edwards, a friend of the late Shannen Koostachin, and Ms. Koostachin's father Andrew, address a Parliament Hill news conference on Feb. 27, 2012.

Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Shannen Koostachin had a dream: to go to school in a proper building, not a decrepit portable on contaminated soil.

The Grade 8 student from Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario journeyed to Ottawa to make her case. When she was rebuffed, she mobilized native and other youths to pressure the government to correct years of unequal funding that had left first-nations children attending schools without libraries, computers and, in some cases, running water.

On Monday, politicians in the House of Commons told Shannen's supporters they had heard her plea and would finally take the first steps toward ensuring that first-nations students receive the same quality of education as other Canadian children.

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But Shannen was not able to rejoice at the news: She was killed in a car crash in 2010 at the age of 15.

"I am here today for my best friend Shannen Koostachin," 16-year-old Chelsea Edwards said Monday in Ottawa. "She told us we shouldn't have to beg for equal rights. Shannen inspired young people across Canada to work together. Attawapiskat children started this campaign. Non-native children across Canada joined our fight. Together we are strong."

It was in 2008 that Shannen and two classmates travelled to Ottawa to ask Chuck Strahl, then the Conservative minister of Indian Affairs, to replace the portable. Mr. Strahl explained to the trio that his department could not afford the expense. Shannen was skeptical. She later recalled that, looking around the minister's richly appointed office, she told him she wished she went to school in surroundings that nice.

Back in Attawapiskat, Shannen went on Facebook and other social media to organize a campaign to increase funding for native education. Since 1996, increases in the money provided by Ottawa to reserve schools have been capped at 2 per cent, while the federal money for provincially funded education has been increasing by 6 per cent annually.

Eventually, the campaign's message hit home. In 2009, the government relented and said it would put a new school in Attawapiskat; it is slated to open in 2014. And on Monday, the Conservatives supported an NDP motion calling on the government to provide the funding to put reserve schools on par with non-reserve provincial schools – money that could be written into a budget that is anticipated in the coming weeks.

Charlie Angus, the New Democrat whose riding includes Attawapiskat, said improving the quality of education on reserves will be a long-term effort.

"We want to see money in the budget, we want to see that funding gap closed," he said. "We know that it's going to take some time to get our schools up to standards, but that's what this commitment is about, that's what the government is signing on to, and that's what we expect will be the result."

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Shannen's friends and family were in Ottawa to celebrate the news and the young girl who helped make it happen. Ms. Edwards told reporters she had never seen a real school until she left Attawapiskat to attend high school in Timmins, 300 kilometres to the south.

"We want the funding gap closed. We want proper plans for building schools. We want funding for textbooks and libraries. We want clean and comfy schools," Ms. Edwards said. "Children only have one childhood. This government has wasted the potential of too many first-nations children. It's time to make things right."

Andrew Koostachin, Shannen's father, said the vote marked a special moment for the people of Attawapiskat and for all first nations of Canada.

"A young girl had a dream that all children of this country deserve safe and comfy schools," he said, "and when she was denied that dream she came back and said that she wasn't going to give up until this dream becomes a reality."

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