Attawapiskat’s Chelsea Edwards knows all too well how bad it is to attend school in portables.
“It sucks,” the 16-year-old said. “Having to walk portable to portable when it’s –40 degrees, and you have the wind chill, wind blowing in your face.”
Edwards was a toddler when the J.R. Nakogee School in Attawapiskat was condemned due to diesel fuel contamination in 2001. Before she moved south to attend high school, all her education was learned in those portables.
“I basically wore my jacket inside the portable during winter. You could feel the draft coming in.”
She said the school also lacked proper textbooks and equipment.
“You can often smell this, ugh, you can smell something in there. It was disgusting. I didn’t want this to go on any further.”
In February, Edwards and other First Nations youth will be going to the United Nations (UN) to urge them to call on the Canadian government to fulfill its obligations under the Declaration on Indigenous Rights.
Edwards will be presenting a report called Our Dreams Matter Too, which calls on the federal government to close funding gaps for on-reserve schools.
The Grade 11 student at Timmins High & Vocational School is going as part of Shannen’s Dream, a campaign aimed at ensuring that all First Nations in Canada have “safe and comfy” schools.
The initiative is named after Shannen Koostachin, a 15-year-old who was in the midst of campaigning for a new school in Attawapiskat and other First Nations when she tragically passed away in May 2010 in an automobile accident.
Edwards remembers Shannen fondly.
“Shannen, she was one of my good friends and cousins,” she said. “She did motivate me. She was like any other kid. She hated doing dishes, hated doing chores and homework. But she did love school and that was one of her passions.”
Shannen’s drive and her letter writing campaign to get a new school inspired Edwards.
“It made me realize that we can do things further,” she said. “Despite the fact that she passed on, I decided to show her what she taught me.”
After Shannen’s passing, Edwards decided to carry on her legacy and contacted MP Charlie Angus, who supported Shannen and the community’s need for a school.
“I emailed Charlie Angus telling him I wanted to do things in her honour, to keep her dream going,” Edwards said.
She became a youth ambassador for Shannen’s Dream.
The poor quality of education and facilities in her community affects Edwards even now. She took Grade 9 in Attawapiskat and “it didn’t challenge me in the way I wanted it to,” she said. So she pleaded to parents to let her move south, first to Cochrane and then Timmins.
Her family stayed behind.
“It was really difficult and it still is right now,” she said. “Leaving your home and your family and everyone you love at such a young age, especially when it comes to education.”
“You feel alone and you can’t go on any further, but I keep pushing myself to go forward, and to go through with my promises.”
On Nov. 17, a year after the official launch of Shannen’s Dream, Edwards found out she would be going to the UN.
Along with presenting reports based on Shannen’s Dream, Edwards also wants to discuss the youth perspective on the housing crisis that is facing her community.
“It definitely isn’t new to me. This is something that we’ve seen throughout as I’ve grown old, and it’s something that shouldn’t go on,” she said.
She said her own house back home shifts a lot in the wind and she feels a lot of drafts.
“It is getting crowded now. We have our niece and sister’s boyfriend, and when I go home I sleep on the couch and it’s uncomfortable.”
Edwards is still in awe in having the opportunity to present to the UN on behalf of her people.
“I feel very proud and very – there’s no words to explain it. The work I do, I have a lot of passion and I know I’ll feel good when we present to the United Nations. Our voices are stronger now.”
Shannen’s Dream has a website (www.shannensdream.ca) where Edwards encourages everyone to sign up to show support for the initiative.
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