Chelsea Edwards felt nervous going into the House of Commons in Ottawa on Feb. 27 as it was about to vote on Motion 202, called Shannen’s Dream.
After all, it was part of what the 16-year-old from Attawapiskat had been fighting for since she stepped up and became the spokesperson for Shannen’s Dream a year-and-half ago.
“I didn’t know how it would be and how the outcome would look like,” she said. “But I knew that they were going to pass it.”
Shannen’s Dream is a campaign aimed at urging the federal government to ensure that every First Nation child in Canada is provided with a ‘safe and comfy’ school and equitable funding. It is named after Shannen Koostachin, a 15-year-old who was told face-to-face by then Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl that providing funds for First Nations schools was not a priority. Shannen’s own school had been closed in 2000 due to diesel fuel contamination and she and other students had to learn in badly built portables. She went on to initiate the biggest letter-writing campaign in Canadian history to urge the government to build Attawapiskat and other First Nations new schools.
In September 2010, NDP MP Charlie Angus (Timmins-James Bay) introduced the Shannen’s Dream motion to parliament, five months after Shannen’s tragic death in a car accident. And last fall, Angus reintroduced the motion, which called on the government to close the funding gap on First Nations reserves.
Sitting with Shannen’s parents – Andrew and Jenny Koostachin – and Shannen’s older sister, Serena and her daughter, Baby Shannen, Chelsea didn’t realize what was happening as the members of parliament were voting unanimously to support the motion.
“Serena and I were sitting side-by-side with Baby Shannen, and we thought they were just taking attendance,” Chelsea recalls. “After everyone sat down, we were like ‘OK, good, everyone’s here, let’s get it started.’ And they looked at us and started clapping.”
Everyone in the House gave Chelsea and the Koostachin family a standing ovation.
“We looked at each other and were like, ‘Did we win?’”
And while Chelsea, the Koostachin family and supporters celebrated the outcome of the vote, Chelsea realizes that the Conservative government, which supported the motion, will still have to follow through.
“They have to put their words into action, to finally implement Shannen’s Dream,” she said. “I know it’ll take a lot of time for it, unfortunately. There are days where I just wish I could imagine one, and poof, there’s a new school. (But) we’ll have to be patient.”
Angus said that for the first time, Parliament has recognized the need to close the funding gap between provincial and reserve schools.
“We’ve come an extraordinary distance in the last 3-4 years, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “We need to now continue this national campaign to ensure the actual dollars are in place and that there is a government follow through on this promise.”
While the motion does not legally oblige the government to increase funding for First Nations education, Angus said it has a moral obligation to follow through.
The Shannen’s Dream campaign will continue to lead that push, but it will likely be without Chelsea at the forefront. She said she considers the motion passing to be her last event as the spokesperson.
“I’m gonna let the children take it,” she said. “They’re the ones who are in those toxic portables, they’re the ones who are experiencing it, so I’m sure they want their say. I’m going to let them step up and let them speak instead of me speaking for them.”
Chelsea will not step down unrecognized, however. She recently received the J.S. Woodsworth Youth Award, which is presented annually to a person or organization for their outstanding commitment to eliminating racism.
Chelsea is close to graduating from high school in Timmins. Afterwards, she plans on working for a year before attending Carleton Univeristy in Ottawa, where she will study human rights and possibly law.
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