Battle brewing over native school
Published Thursday, March 6, 2008 3:30PM EST
They go to school in portables in the sometimes minus 40 degree weather of northern Ontario, while an elementary school sits empty nearby, made inhabitable by an oil spill.
They are the children of the native community of Attawapiskat and they are stuck in the middle of a political battleground.
Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for the region, has taken the fight to Ottawa, demanding a new school be built for the community. He even posted a video on YouTube, chronicling the children's plight, and the video became one of the most watched political videos on the website this week.
The video features stills of children holding signs such as "A school is like a heart, you need a healthy one" set to a version of "Stand by Me." At the end of the video, viewers are asked to write to Chuck Strahl, minister for Indian Affairs and Northern Development, about the school.
Four hundred children in the community have been attending classes in portables since 2000. Parents pulled their children out of J.R. Nakogee School that year because of all the health problems reported since a massive diesel leak at the school in 1979.
"No library, no playground. The situation would never be accepted anywhere else in the country," Angus told CTV News. "Why is it acceptable for First Nation children in Ontario?"
Angus traded words with Strahl earlier this week, saying that Strahl had put a "full stop" on a plan to build a new school.
The community says that since 2000, successive Indian Affairs ministers have promised them a new school, but to no avail.
Strahl has said that while the situation is unfortunate, the government simply doesn't have the funds right now as there are other communities that need a new school more.
He said that $1.7 billion is in the budget for native education and that 12 new school projects are going ahead this year.
Because another school burnt down near Attawapiskat, $13 million not in the budget needed to be used in the region to build another school, Strahl said.
The campaign for a new school in Attawapiskat has gone beyond the community, in part because of the YouTube video. Students in other schools in Ontario are helping out by petitioning Ottawa.
"In Canada . . . we are rich and we can't find enough to provide schools for the First Nations people?" asks Julien Dyer, a student at Neil McNeil High School in Scarborough, Ont. "We were just surprised and pretty shocked and disgusted by that."
But Strahl says that he is responsible for over 600 schools across the reserve system and many of them are in worse conditions than the one in Attawapiskat.
He told CTV News that his children even spent time in portable classrooms in British Columbia.
"Kids in portables, it's not ideal . . . but it's not unheard of either," Strahl said Thursday on Canada AM.
With a report from CTV's Graham Richardson