Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl says a growing YouTube campaign to support native students on one of Canada’s poorest reserves is having no effect on official policy.Yet, his department is back at the table with leaders of the remote Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario who’ve fought for eight years for a new elementary school.
“The YouTube thing has nothing to do with it,” Strahl said Tuesday when asked why Indian Affairs officials have resumed education talks on the James Bay reserve.
“We have set up a working group with both the school board, chief and council, departmental staff…that will look at all opportunities to improve educational outcomes for the kids.”
Watch the video:
But a new school isn’t in the cards for the 400 children depicted on a YouTube video that has been watched more than 30,000 times, Strahl said.
The three-minute video, set to John Lennon’s version of Stand By Me, was put together one weekend by NDP MP Charlie Angus. It strings together photos of Attawapiskat kids and the cracked walls of their makeshift portables covered with hand-made signs asking for a new building.
Their old school was shut down in 2000 after illnesses were blamed on a diesel leak dating back to 1979. Talks with Indian Affairs went so far as to nail down the actual size of a new building before federal officials suddenly said last December that there was no funding for the project.
The YouTube video has inspired heavyweight support from Ontario teachers’ unions, along with letter-writing and video campaigns at schools across Ontario and in Quebec, B.C. and New Brunswick.
The minister dismissed what he called Angus’s “YouTube fetish.”
“I don’t watch YouTube to get direction on this stuff,” Strahl said outside the House of Commons.
“We don’t fund based on who can do the best promotion, or whose MP can ask the most questions in the House of Commons or anything else. It just doesn’t work that way. We have to work in a systematic way starting with health and safety issues for the kids, and then allocating budget based on that.
“The budget just doesn’t put a new school at the top of the priority list for Attawapiskat.”
Angus said the issue goes far beyond one Ontario reserve, highlighting the sorry state of federally neglected native schools across Canada.
“We’ve got kids who are being taught in basements, in sheds, communities where schools have burnt down and nobody ever bothered from Indian Affairs to rebuild a school. I mean, it’s a horror story. This isn’t Kabul. This is Canada.”
The government blamed rising costs for construction and other services when it froze funding for new schools and major repairs late last year.
Angus and other critics say the Conservatives are turning their backs on First Nations that have waited years for decent classrooms. Overcrowded, ill-equipped schools are often cited for poor attendance and high native dropout rates.
“This is a government that’s moving the funding that should be in place for First Nations schools and (spending) it elsewhere,” on tax cuts, Angus said.
“This is, in some ways, 21st-century cyber kids taking on the 19th-century Indian agent,” he said of the YouTube phenomenon.
“We know they’re feeling the heat. What we’re hearing from the department is a lot of pressure. And that pressure will continue until a school is built.”
Strahl said Ottawa has already spent $5 million on eight portables at Attawapiskat, along with $250,000 on high school renovations to help accommodate the elementary school pupils.
The government also announced another $50 million last year for 12 native school projects.
-with a report from CP