At the heart of Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream, by Timmins–James Bay Member of Parliament Charlie Angus, is Shannen Koostachin, a young activist from Attawapiskat First Nation who campaigned tirelessly to bring a school to her community, until her death in 2010 at age 15.
In researching his seventh book, out with University of Regina Press in August, Angus uncovered a horrific governmental legacy of neglect toward First Nations children.
For you, what is the importance of Shannen’s story? I’m amazed, to some extent, the incredible influence that Shannen continues to have. She’s a real modern civil-rights icon.
I don’t think adults recognize what a powerful symbol Shannen is to Canadian youth. I was invited to speak to a school in Markham, Ontario – 600 students, all first-generation Canadians – and the excitement they had over the story of Shannen, and the fact that a youth could make a change, struck me as really profound. The story needs to be told of how reconciliation is playing out on the ground.
What did you discover in researching through Freedom of Information requests?
I could never get my head around how a government could be so brutal toward children who were fighting for school. The campaign in Attawapiskat became the largest youth-driven children’s-rights campaign in Canadian history, but the resistance at government levels was shocking. I wanted to find out what was going on and who was giving the messages. The pattern at the Department of Indian Affairs was very, very troubling.
I was also looking for documents for the survivors of St. Anne’s Residential School, and was sent historical documents by mistake. That’s when I really started seeing the long-standing policy within the federal government. This book is really about how there’s nothing accidental about the high failure and suicide rates of First Nations children. This is very much part of a policy of systemic negligence against an entire population of children.
When I sat down to write, I had a lot of information that suddenly really made sense. Before they were all isolated documents and incidents, but once I could see the pattern and I knew what the pattern was, I was able to piece together the narrative very, very persuasively.
What do you hope to achieve with the book? It needs to speak to how we got here, in terms of this broken relationship with First Nations people and offer a way forward, which I think is to do right by the children.