Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour to speak to Shannen's Dream motion, representing the great people of the Timmins—James Bay region where Shannen Koostachin was born. Today in Fort Albany is the great moon gathering, where all the Cree communities will come together. I would like to point out that tonight in Fort Albany the great band Tragically Hip will be performing because it has been inspired by the young people of the James Bay coast.
This is a historic moment in Parliament and for Canada. This is the first motion that has been drive by children. The reason we are debating this issue is because children across the country have recognized their brothers and sisters have been denied basic education rights. This is about putting children first. I cannot think of another instance where school children in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and across western Canada could tell every member in Parliament about what Shannen's Dream means. They know it, they have been living it and they have been inspired by the story of Shannen Koostachin. This is a historic opportunity.
It is also an extremely important time for parliamentarians because of all the rock throwing that has gone on in the House and all the blame that has happened. It is our job to fight with each other, but there are occasions when, as a nation, we are called to rise to something greater. That moment came for me when members in the last Parliament gathered for the apology regarding the residential schools. I remember standing in the House on that historic day, wondering who was going to apologize to this generation of children.
That question has remained unanswered until perhaps today with the adoption of Shannen's Dream, not just the idea of Shannen's Dream but the actual principles that have been articulated about the need to close funding gaps, to ensure there is ring fencing around capital projects so we can start to build schools and ensure that there are adequate teacher-student class size ratios, just like every other child in our country. If we agree to that as parliamentarians, we are taking a historic step forward. I can tell everyone that the children are watching.
I would like to tell the House a bit about Shannen Koostachin. George Stroumboulopoulos picked five teenage girls in history who kicked butt. I know that is probably not a parliamentary expression, but George Stroumboulopoulos' words were even tougher. He picked Joan of Arc, Anne Frank, Mary Shelley, Buffy the vampire slayer, and I am not sure why but my kids say that has a lot of street credibility, and he picked Shannen Koostachin as number one. That is an extraordinary achievement for a child who came from the impoverished community of Attawapiskat.
Shannen did not want to make history. She might have liked to make history, but she did not set out to be a hero. She wanted to be on a volleyball team. She wanted to have a locker. She wanted to write notes in the classroom. She had a dream that she could have what she called “a comfy school”.
I once walked with Shannen in Cobalt, Ontario at little St. Patrick Catholic School, a tiny school. It would not even be on the radar of what people think of as a proper school today, but it has a nice, comfy little feel. Shannen kept disappearing on me. I went to look for her and I found her looking in a classroom window. I asked her if something was wrong and she said, “I wish I had my entire life over so I could go to a school like this”. At age 13, she had realized that opportunity was slipping away from her and that might never come back. To see a sense of urgency through a child's eyes, the sense that if he or she does not get an education, that the child will never be better off, is deeply disturbing.
We have known about the underfunding. We knew about study after study that sat at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development for years. It just was not a priority. Nobody in the House thought it was a priority that children were suffering, that there was substandard education and children were being treated with systemic discrimination based on their race and the fact that they lived on reserve. It was never a priority until one child said, “Enough”. When Shannen Koostachin started to fight, other children came with her. She has been called by many young people across Canada as the Rosa Parks of this generation, the one who said, “Enough is enough. We don't want to spend another day sitting at the back of the school bus”.
This can be about the blame game. This can be about the 100 and some horror stories that have been mentioned. I have been to communities where I do not know how the children can go to school in the morning and sit in those cold substandard classrooms. To me, that is a sign of real heroes. We could talk about all of that or we could talk about how we will actually fulfill the obligation of this great nation.
Every now and then I hear people say, “When is enough enough? When have we done our bit with first nations?” We are on a path together. We are in a relationship together. It has been an abusive and dysfunctional relationship, but we will continue on in this relationship together.
It is incumbent upon the members of the House of Commons to stand today and say that we as Canadians believe in the fundamental principle that every child has a right to an education. Every child has the right to guaranteed access to education. A right to an education is not just access to a school. A right to an education is a more fundamental principle. Children should not have to know what that right is when they walk in that school. Just like any child, whether in Timmins, Red Deer or any other community in the country, their rights are encoded in law, that class-to-size-ratios are guaranteed and that there is a plan for children with dyslexia, autism or special needs because they only have one childhood. It is too precious a thing to waste. Under the bureaucratic indifference of successive governments, we have squandered the lives and potential of tens of thousands of wonderful young aboriginal children who have never been given what they should have been given.
Shannen's Dream motion was born the moment of her horrible death on May 31, 2010, on Highway 11, just south of Temagami. It was the worst day of my life when I found out we had lost a youth leader. National education leaders, national labour leaders, Cindy Blackstock and others called me to say that we had to carry this on. Young Chelsea Edwards from Attawapiskat called me. Her community and the whole of James Bay area was devastated that we had lost this young leader. They said that we had to fulfill what Shannen started.
The language of Shannen's Dream was crafted out of that tragedy, out of that sense of grief. We sat down with members of the Assembly of First Nations, the Canadian Public School Boards Association, the trustees and teachers to ask what steps were necessary to guarantee that this generation of children would not be squandered.
Shannen would be 17 now. She had a dream. I think she wanted to be a lawyer on some given days and I am not sure what she wanted to be on other given days, but she wanted to get an education more than life itself. That was her passion and her belief. She used to tell me that it was not about her anymore; it was about the younger brothers and sisters. I think of those younger brothers and sisters in my communities, in Kashechewan, where we do not have a proper school, and in Attawapiskat where the kids still wait for a school. They are looking to the House of Commons.
This is a moment of unity, not just for first nation students but for non-native children from across Canada who have reached out to say that if we work together, we can bring change.
Here we are in the House of Commons. This is our moment. I call upon all parliamentarians to say that this is our time to apologize for what has gone on and that this is the way we will move forward as a country. I would like to see the support of every member in the House as we stand for Shannen's Dream.