Unbelievable. Appalling. Horrific. These are adjectives that could be used to describe the contents of Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream. This book will make readers feel uncomfortable. It’s designed to have that effect. Discomfort is the first step to justice, and justice is the first step to recovery and reconciliation.
Member of Parliament Charlie Angus pleads throughout his book that Canada’s treatment of Aboriginals is a national shame. Those most severely affected are the Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario, part of Treaty 9 territory. Many homes are without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Even when water is available, it often has to be boiled. When the sewage station fails, sewers overflow. Educational opportunities are lacking. Suicides are at epidemic proportions.
Angus provides an historical overview of the signing of Treaty 9 in 1910. Among its provisions is a promise to provide Aboriginals with proper education. The Attawapiskat school is infected with black mould and the ground under it swollen with toxins. When it’s torn down, the wind blows toxins throughout the community.
Until a new school is built, students must study in overcrowded portable trailers. The toilet is in the classroom, separated only by a wall. In winter, students wear jackets indoors to keep warm. Mice eat their snacks.
It’s difficult to remain optimistic while being dragged down by an undercurrent of hopelessness. Angus emphasises that this sense of despair is bred by intolerable conditions that would be unacceptable in Third World countries, let alone Canada.
One Aboriginal girl brings a flicker of hope to otherwise dark circumstances. Shannen Koostachin’s dream is to go to a regular school like most children take for granted. She organizes other children and lobbies for a new school.
When she dies in a car accident at age fifteen, the flame of hope does not die with her. Her sister Serena and friend Chelsea Edwards catch the torch and carry on. Angus quotes from the children, letting them relate their personal experiences.
In 2010, Angus introduces a parliamentary motion – Shannen’s Dream motion – in the House of Commons. Children across Canada, inspired by Shannen’s efforts, write letters of support. Students from Attawapiskat are sitting in the gallery as each Member of Parliament rises to vote. At first the children think the members are merely rising for roll call. The motion passes unanimously. Attawapiskat finally gets a new school, fulfilling Shannen’s dream.
This 324-page book contains a bibliography, notes, and forty-three black and white photos. Some photos are gruesome, for instance showing a rash on a child’s skin caused by bathing in polluted water. In contrast, some photos display the childlike innocence of youth.
Children of the Broken Treaty won two awards at the 2016 Saskatchewan Book Awards – for good reason. Children know when a promise is broken, and they know when someone is lying. Children know the truth. Thanks to Children of the Broken Treaty, now the world knows too.
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