CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 32. . . .April 24, 2015
In 1979, 50,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled near the elementary school in Attawapiskat. During the next few years, the staff and students of the school reported a higher than normal incidence of sickness. Indian Affairs denied that there was any problem. In 2000, the community decided to close the school. A new school was not opened until September of 2014. In the intervening years, the school was a collection of unconnected portables with very limited resources. Even though the community had been promised a new school in 2000, 2002 and 2004, no school was built. The struggle to have a school built is a story that should cause anger in all Canadians and embarrassment on the part of the government.
In Hi-Ho Mistahey!, Alanis Obomsawin once again allows those involved in the struggle to tell their own stories. The focus of the drive to get the school built was 15-year-old Shannen Koostachin, and even though she died in a car accident in 2010, her dream of having a school that could provide the children with a decent education became known as Shannen’s Dream. Why a young student in Canada has to campaign to have an elementary school built is a question that is never answered.
As in her other films, Obomsawin simply lets the people speak. Children describe what it is like going to school in cold portables. Staff members are shown trying to do their best, but, with limited resources, there is great frustration. One teacher states that there is a high turnover of teachers. In one year alone, 12 teachers left. Area MP Charlie Angus speaks freely of his anger at the government for not addressing the needs of the community. Shannen’s sister, Serena, who started the lobbying for a new school, shows her admiration for her sister, and her feeling of loss is clear. Both girls had been sent south for school, and it was there that Shannen died in a car accident.
Federal funding for First Nation schools is not at the same level as provincially funded schools. Students in Attawapiskat get “half what a student in Sudbury or Timmins would get for education”. Any money allocated for education on the reserve could be used for any number of other projects. Student delegations are shown speaking at a number of venues ranging from other schools to politicians. Their lack of progress forces them to take the issue of First Nation education to the UN in Geneva. The hope is the Canadian government might be shamed into providing a decent education to all students—First Nation students included.
Charlie Angus has an interest in improving the conditions on the reserves because they are in his riding. However, he is doubly connected as Shannen and Serena lived with the Angus family for a year. He admits that they had difficulty being so far from home. Serena says that she was often homesick. The transition from her school to a new school was difficult. They should have been able to have received a quality education at home. Angus introduced Shannen’s Dream in the House of Commons—to bring funding for First Nation education to the level of non Native schools. It passed unanimously, but how it will translate into action, only time will tell.
While the story of Shannen’s Dream is a key aspect of this film, Obomsawin does not focus only on negative aspects of life in Attawapiskat. True, the school building is substandard, but there is education going on. Women are shown smoking geese in the traditional way, talking about the process and sharing stories. Men are out hunting in groups. The elders tell stories that celebrate their history and culture. Children are learning Cree, joining drumming circles and dancing. There is a sense of vitality that will not be destroyed by Ottawa’s lack of action.
At the same time, there is much that needs to be done. One young man shows concern for the kids who, out of boredom, “just burn stuff—trucks, sheds”. He admits he was a troublemaker when younger, but he is worried that someone could easily get hurt. Suicide and drug use are distressing. In addition to losing Shannen, Serena counts off five friends she has lost to suicide and accidents. There is a sadness here that should not be.
Hi-Ho Mistahey! is a heartbreaking film to watch. No one from the government is on camera to justify or explain their side of the situation. Just as well, probably, as there is no excuse. As hard as it is to watch, this is still a beautiful experience. Seeing the rallying behind Shannen’s hope for a school that is “safe and comfy” is truly moving. The many elementary school children shown taking up Shannen’s Dream understand what schools should be; how can adult politicians be so dense? The passionate Attawapiskat students who make presentations to the various groups are the future leaders and in that alone there is great hope.
The film is a must-see for all educators and politicians. It is far too long for one class period, but there are many aspects of the film that could be featured and discussed over several periods. Hi-Ho Mistahey has great applicability in History, Civics, Ethics, Sociology, Politics, Family Studies, Geography, Religion, and Law classes. I have admitted before how much I love Alanis Obomsawin’s films. This one is among her best.
Frank Loreto, now retired, was the teacher librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.