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Interview with Charlie Angus

The NDP MP talks about the suicide crisis in Attawapiskat and his latest book, which details the troubled relations between Canada’s Indigenous and settler communities

By Rob Thomas

Q Your book Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream is about Shannen Koostachin and a youth-led fight for a school in Attawapiskat, Ont. But you go back to Treaty 9 and the residential school experience. Why is it important to make those connections?

A I think the showdown between Shannen Koostachin and the Indian Affairs minister on the steps of Parliament in 2008 is a milestone moment in the fight for Indigenous justice in Canada. But it can only be fully understood in the context of the larger history. There was nothing accidental about the brutal conditions that Attawapiskat children were being educated in. It is part of a longstanding policy of denial of basic education and health rights to [Aboriginal] children. It culminated in that school fight in Attawapiskat and led to the stepping forward of such a powerful youth leader as Shannen.

Q How does the suicide crisis we now see in Attawapiskat intersect with the story you tell in your book?

A Attawapiskat has, time and time again, been ground zero for the fight against injustice. Many communities were denied schools, but it was the children in Attawapiskat who stood up and led the fight that became a national conversation and a national struggle for education rights, which has become transformative. We’ve had many communities locked in suicide crises. For some reason, it’s the story of Attawapiskat and of this youth council trying to keep kids alive that has touched Canadians. So once again, it is this very, very poor and troubled community in Treaty 9 that becomes our window into the disparity — and a place where these issues move beyond just self-destruction and despair.

Q You write about your first encounters with the issues facing the Cree peoples of James Bay as a new MP coming into that riding. Can you tell me why you included that?

A I felt it was important in the transition from the history of the treaty and what happened at St. Anne’s Residential School — the transition from a straight history to something recorded and lived now. I had to orient the reader to who I was and why I was taking the position I had before stepping back and letting the story continue. But I was also trying to present it to the average reader through the eyes of someone walking into these communities. If you have never been in the Ontario communities on James Bay, there is a real sense of community, but also the crushing poverty is really, really shocking. I had never seen conditions like what I saw in Attawapiskat and Kashechewan.

Q You retrace the public battle that you and the students of Attawapiskat fought against the former Conservative government and then Indian and Northern Affairs minister Chuck Strahl, but you include context that you probably didn’t have at the time. Where did that material come from?

A I had been gathering access to information documents as this battle unfolded. Partly because I just couldn’t believe the malevolence from the federal government. I couldn’t believe that federal bureaucrats would be colluding to make up stories about why children were being denied a school. When I decided to write the book, I felt it was possible because we had the backstory. We had, through access to information, all the documents showing what the government knew and how it was attempting to spin the story of children who were being denied basic education. Some of the attempts, for example, were to claim that these kids were somehow queue-jumping because there were other kids who were worse off than them. This had become such a hot political battle. I found it shocking at the time. Even going through the documents, I was shocked at what I read.

Q There is a scene in which Shannen Koostachin visits St. Patrick School in Cobalt, Ont. She looks through a classroom window, sees children’s art and assignments and says, “I wish I had my whole life to do over just so I could be in a school like this one.” Tell me what you saw motivating her as a leader?

A It was very heartbreaking for me when Shannen said that. She wasn’t even speaking to me. She was speaking to herself when I went up to see why she kept leaving our little group. At that moment, everything that I thought I knew about my role as a politician changed. I was seeing it as a politician; I was seeing it as a political issue — an issue about fairness. What I saw in Shannen was a child who knew that her opportunities were disappearing, and if she didn’t take action fast, the opportunities might never come again. And that really transformed my sense of urgency. I really understood, through her, that children only have one childhood. And once it is gone, it never comes back. Shannen knew that. And that’s why she fought so hard. She had such a sense of drive and determination. Part of it was [out of a] sense of justice but also, I think, fear that if she didn’t get this chance the doors would close like they had closed for so many other Indigenous children.

Q You’re a Catholic, a former separate school board trustee. What role does faith play in the work that you do?

A Faith and the fight for social justice were part of my upbringing. Sometimes you are there at a moment in history when you see something that is much bigger than yourself, or something that you simply don’t understand. I ask myself every day about Shannen dying at such a young age. [Koostachin died in a traffic accident near Temagami, Ont., in 2010. She was 15 years old and had been attending high school in New Liskeard.] I guess what I’ve learned from my faith is that out of that tragedy something very, very powerful came about. Many young people stepped up and saw in her story, and in her loss, the need for other young people to come forward. I guess I marvel that I’ve been able to be here and see such great things and people.

Q You described, during an emergency debate in Parliament last April, the current crisis as “our moment,” but your book documents several moments that could have prompted action. How do you reconcile that?

A What I believe is that each of these crises, which are so horrific, become an opportunity for Canada to finally deal with the severity of the ongoing relations between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society. And, time and time again, Canada decides not to rise up at that moment but to wait it out or to offer a tepid response, and those opportunities become lost. This is yet another in a long series of moments when everything becomes crystal clear about the disparity in the relationship. And I believe this is an opportunity, once again, for Canada to finally respond in a substantive way — to move us on the road to reconciliation.  

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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