Shannen Noella Jane Koostachin, Cree youth leader, Indigenous education activist (born 12 July 1994 in Attawapiskat First Nation, ON; died 31 May 2010 near Temagami, ON). Koostachin became a leader of Students Helping Students, a campaign to have a new school built in her Indigenous community. This became the largest youth-led rights movement in Canadian history. Koostachin’s campaign to improve Indigenous education in Canada continues today as “Shannen’s Dream” — a movement launched by children from Attawapiskat in November 2010. (See also Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Early Life and Education
Shannen Koostachin was the third of six children born to Andrew Koostachin and Jenny Nakogee. Even as a youngster (nicknamed “Shan Shan”), she was passionate about attending school. In her isolated community of Attawapiskat near the coast of James Bay, however, public pressure had closed the J.R. Nakogee Elementary School in 2000. A 1979 toxic diesel leak that had never been thoroughly cleaned had contaminated the school grounds. As a result, there was no proper elementary school in the community, and 400 children had to make do with portable trailers supplied by the federal government.
Although the portables were supposed to be temporary, Koostachin started kindergarten in them. They lacked sufficient insulation and proper ventilation. By the time she was in Grade 8, they had deteriorated further and were cold, mice-infested and had developed black mould. As a result, children as young as Grades 4 and 5 were dropping out of school. Although the federal Department of Indian and Northern Affairs had promised to build a new school in the community, it repeatedly went back on its promise.
Attawapiskat School Campaign
Shannen Koostachin led her fellow youth in the Attawapiskat School Campaign, which advocated for a “safe and comfy” school. Using social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, she encouraged Indigenous and non-Indigenous children across Canada to write letters to the government to demand change and equal opportunities for all students. Three successive ministers of Indian Affairs had promised a new school, in 2000, 2005 and 2006-7, but had never followed through. In 2008, then Minister Chuck Strahl wrote to the community and stated the government could not fund a new school.
Koostachin’s Grade 8 class cancelled their planned graduation trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls and used the money to go to Ottawa to demand a new school. A delegation, including Koostachin, was selected to meet Strahl in May 2008. He told her and the delegation that the federal government could not afford a new school and had no intention of building one. Koostachin made a speech on the steps of Parliament and told the media afterward that she would never quit until every First Nations child had a proper school.
Students Helping Students Campaign
Shannen Koostachin became a leader of the largest youth-led children’s rights campaign in Canadian history, called Students Helping Students. Her efforts raised awareness of the shoddy conditions and standards in First Nations schools. In December 2009, this led to the government finally committing to follow through on its promise to build a new school in Attawapiskat.
Move to Attend High School
When she was 14, Shannen Koostachin moved 600 km away to New Liskeard, Ontario, to join her older sister, Serena, to obtain their high school education. They lived with Charlie Angus, New Democratic Party Member of Parliament for Timmins-James Bay, for a year. Angus later wrote a book about the history of Indigenous education and Koostachin’s campaign, Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream (2015).
Shannen Koostachin was tragically killed in 2010 shortly before her 16th birthday when the minivan in which she was a passenger collided with a transport truck on Highway 11, near Temagami, south of New Liskeard. The accident also resulted in the death of van driver Rose Thornton, 56, while two teenage passengers sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
Shannen Koostachin’s campaign to improve Indigenous education country-wide continues today as “Shannen’s Dream,” a movement launched by children from Attawapiskat in November 2010. It lives on through the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society, a national, non-profit networking organization founded in 1998 and based in Ottawa. Among its aims is the promotion of good education for First Nations children. (See also Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
In February 2012, six First Nations youth travelled to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva, Switzerland, to describe conditions in First Nations schools, among other issues. In the same month, the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion proposed by MP Charlie Angus that called on the federal government to close the funding gap faced by First Nations students and to establish quality First Nations education.
Koostachin’s legacy in Attawapiskat is a new school, Kattawapiskak Elementary School. Construction started on 22 June 2012 (the day she would have graduated) and the school opened on 8 September 2014.
The National Film Board produced Hi-Ho Mistahey! (“I love you forever,” one of Koostachin’s favourite expressions), a feature-length documentary that tells the story of Shannen’s Dream, in 2013. Another documentary film, called Shannen’s Dream, was made about her efforts and the continuing campaign to improve Indigenous education and schools.
Did You Know?
Shannen Koostachin has been immortalized by DC Comics. A Justice League hero named Equinox was based on Koostachin. Equinox appeared in a five-issue story in the Justice League Canada series in 2014.
Shannon Koostachin’s activism has been recognized nationally and internationally in many ways. In 2008, she was nominated for the International Children’s Peace Prize, awarded to a child who has worked to improve children’s lives around the world. In 2010, Koostachin was posthumously given the Article 12 Award by the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children. (See also Human Rights.)
A 1.4 m bronze statue of Koostachin, created by Sudbury artist Tyler Fauvelle, was unveiled in New Liskeard in 2015. It rests on a granite base and depicts her dancing in traditional powwow regalia and features symbols of her Cree heritage. Butterfly benches are installed nearby. A 2017 documentary film, Butterfly Monument: A Tribute to Shannen Koostachin, details the creation of her statue. Also in 2017, Koostatchin was selected as one of the top 150 Canadians as part of Canada 150 celebrations. In 2019, a new school in Hamilton, Ontario, was named in her honour: Shannen Koostachin Elementary School.