Allison's Book Bag

Shannen and the Dream for a School by Janet Wilson

Posted on: June 10, 2015

“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).” These passionate words were spoken by Shannen Koostachin, a fourteen-year-old activist from the Attawapiskat First Nation in Ontario. Janet Wilson so compellingly recounts Shannen’s story in Shannen and the Dream for a School that not only do I develop a tremendous appreciation for Shannen, but I also become a believer in her dream for safe and comfortable schools for all First Nations young people.

What if your school had closed because of a fuel spill that had happened twenty years ago? What if you and the young people in your community had only portables in which to attend school? What if after waiting eight years for a new school, the government cancels its plans? If you were eighth-grader, Shannen Koostachin, you would protest. You’d organize all your schoolmates and then picket with signs, write letters, create videos for YouTube, and speak at rallies. Wilson movingly portrays how Shannen becomes an activist. One of the most moving moments happens, when Shannen and her eighth-grade class decide that instead of celebrating their graduation by partying at Niagara Falls and Toronto, they would visit Ottawa and talk directly to the minister of Indian Affairs.

While I felt moved by reading of Shannen’s activism, I also enjoyed discovering how much Shannen felt like a normal teen too. Shannen came from a full family, one where she loved to chase her younger siblings. While she loved the traditional Cree foods her great-grandmother made, she also found it boring to pluck the feathers of the geese the men killed and thought following recipes would be an easier way to prepare bannock. Shannen had lots of friends, ones with whom she could talk campaign strategies but also get excited about graduation travel plans. Maybe for graduation, the eighth-grade class could visit Canada’s Wonderland or the Nightmare Fear Factor or….? She cared about whether her favorite teacher would leave or stay, whether the graduating class would have time to shop or attend a boring camp, and whether she could have a regalia of her own or have to share.

Perhaps what most endeared me to Shannen was reading of all the obstacles she had to endure in her fight for a school. Imagine convincing your peers to give up their graduation plans to travel to Ottawa, only to have the Minister of Indian Affairs tell you that it might be another fifteen years before building you a new school becomes priority. Moreover, imagine that when you ask the Minister to visit your community to see the reality of your situation, he declares his schedule is too busy and then abruptly says he has another meeting to attend. These setbacks were understandably enough to make Shannen cry. When later, the old school got demolished and people started complaining of headaches and students start falling sleep at their seats, Shannen felt her hope slipping away. I don’t think that I could have kept up the good fight as long as her, much less somehow renew my strength. That Shannen never gave up makes her an inspiration and role model to young people and adults.

A librarian friend of mine likes to regularly post on Facebook about mighty females. Shannen Koostachin is a young person whom I plan to tell her about. Thanks to Shannen’s never-ending fight, the rest of Canada learned of the plight of First Nations schools, which receive less funding per student than Provincial and Territorial schools, and zero dollars for things like libraries, computers, languages or extracurricular activities. Moreover, many of their schools are plagued by serious health concerns such as extreme black mold contamination, high carbon dioxide levels, rodent and reptile infestations, sewage fumes in schools, and unheated portables.

Besides Shannen and the Dream for a School being a powerful story, there are also many extra features which round out the book, including historical notes, timeline, a glossary of Cree words, photo credits, and acknowledgments. In her research for this story, Wright also interviewed family and friends of Shannen. Shannen and the Dream for a School is a book anyone with a heart should read.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

2 Responses to "Shannen and the Dream for a School by Janet Wilson"

Great review, Allison! Thanks for lending me Janet Wilson’s “Shannen and the Dream for a New School.” Not only did I enjoy reading it, but also like you I “developed a tremendous appreciation for Shannen and became a believer in her dream for safe and comfortable schools for all First Nations young people.”

As well, some of the community names referred to in the book brought back memories–in particular Timmins, my family’s living near it (in South Porcupine) during most of my public school years, and Moosonee, my teaching in an Indian Bible school in it for the two summers before I came to Newfoundland. Moreover an area referred to in your interview with Janet Wilson brought back even earlier memories, my family’s living in Muskoka (in MacTier) when I entered school.

My liking of “Shannen and the Dream for a New School” is reflected in my searching for follow-ups to the story recounted in it. I found these:
Needless to say, I was pleased to learn that Shannen’s dream had become a reality.

I’m glad you liked the review. As with most books that I really like, there were so many other compliments I could have given it. I did recommend it to my librarian friend, along with sending a link to my interview with Janet Wright. She’s put it on the top of her reading list! If I still lived in Canada, Shannen and the Dream for a School would be in my classroom collection. Like you, I also felt happy to know that ultimately Shannen’s dream was honored.

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