Book Review: Shannen and the Dream for a School

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I found a great book. It is a chapter book, about two hundred pages long but with big font and small pages. The story tells of a young native girl who dreams about having a real school instead of the small portable classrooms they have to make do with. In the winter the children walk through ice and snow to get between rooms. Children aren’t allowed to wear boots in school but the teacher has a special code (two fingers up in a peace symbol) to tell the children that it is okay to wear boots because the classrooms are freezing. Not all the students graduate grade eight and few enough go on to graduate from highschool that grade eight grad is a big deal, celebrated with a class trip. Shannen thinks maybe if they had a real school more students would be interested in their education. The government has said that there won’t be a new school for them, it just isn’t a big enough priority, but thirteen year old Shannen thinks maybe if they keep asking, and keep asking, and never give up, they might be able to get one.

The book is called Shannen and the Dream for a School. It is written by Janet Wilson and it starts in 2008, just four years ago. It tells of how Shannen and her classmates decided to use their grad trip to visit Ottawa and how when the Minister of Indian affairs walked into the meeting room and started the conversation with “How do you like this room?” Shannen blurted out “This room is bigger than our whole portable. I wish we had a classroom as nice as this office. Kids would be there every day.” When the Minister of Indian affairs said it would probably be another fifteen years before a school would be built, Shannen shot back “We are not going away. The children are not going to quit. We are not going to give up until we got justice.”

Shannen came from Attawapiskat, a community along the James Bay, in Ontario, Canada. It is a place that made the news in November of 2011 when their Member of Parliament, Charlie Angus, released a video showing their housing crisis, and in response the government of Canada slapped the tribe with punitive measures, imposing an expensive third-party management in what commentators say was a measure to keep other tribes quiet. UN officials have criticized Canada for allowing conditions there to grow so desperate.

Yet the book Shannen and the Dream for a School is in many ways an optimistic book. The book talks about the excitement of the yearly goose hunt. It talks about their snowmobile Christmas parade and about families encouraging each other. It talks about Shannen’s determination, and her caring for her classmates and younger siblings.

The book describes Charlie Angus coming to talk to the school class. It describes him asking if a student and his father went out into a bush in the winter, how long would they survive? The answer is a long time. There is an acknowledgement that the people are incredibly skilled people. (Mr. Angus goes on to point out that if he went out he wouldn’t survive very long at all – but that if the students went to Parliament without a guide, they wouldn’t survive long, so he’s there to help guide them.)

The book points out that the campaign for a school was a group effort. It was a classmate who first suggested they travel to Ottawa and Shannen was one of several to speak. Her older sister too had been part of lobbying the government before, and when Shannen was nominated for the Children’s Peace Prize she was concerned about what her classmates would think, as they had worked so hard.

The school Shannen dreamed of was finally started in Feb of 2012. Unfortunately Shannen died in a traffic accident while away at school in the South, so she won’t be able to see her younger siblings attending the school when it opens in 2013. Nor is her dream completely realized, in that first nations students still suffer from a lack of funding and resources. Visit the Shannen’s Dream webpage for more information.

This book should be mandatory reading material for middle school students. It is a gentle introduction to the way in which Canada has failed to live up to its treaty obligations.

The book is published by Second Story Press.

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