From the shore of Eabamet Lake in Fort Hope, Ont., Ardelle Sagutcheway surveys the land, the water, the tall white birches she’ll miss when she goes to study nursing in the fall at Lakehead University.
“This is where we belong, this is where we come from,” she says.
About 2,500 members of the Eabametoong First Nation live away from the town, but Ms. Sagutcheway won’t be one of them. Degree in hand, she will come back to serve this community 300 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Ms. Sagutcheway tells a story about her last name – which means “coming around the hill”: At the turn of the last century, when the band signed a treaty with the government, a many-times-over great-grandfather was late to the signing – he was just coming around the hill.
This summer, Ms. Sagutcheway is a counsellor at the Lieutenant-Governor’s Summer Aboriginal Literacy Camps. Since the camps were initiated by former Ontario lieutenant-governor James Bartleman eight years ago, they’ve grown to 80 locations in remote native communities across the country, with half in Ontario. This year, the beginning of discussions about the Ring of Fire natural resource development in the north of the province is lending a new urgency to the camps. The need for educated labour in the region is projected to grow exponentially, but if native literacy rates do not increase, Ontario could see a repeat of the Alberta experience, where labour shortages have not closed the gap between provincial and aboriginal employment rates.
Sherry Campbell, the president and CEO of Frontier College, the national literacy organization that runs the camps, is trying to convince industry that putting its money in education will ensure skilled workers are there when the companies need them. “The chiefs get that this is economic development. It’s important to convince the private sector that their economic development depends on investing in early literacy in First Nations communities,” Ms. Campbell says.
Right now, about one in four of the roughly 1,500 residents of the town has a job. But that can change if development proceeds in the vast but inaccessible area that is surrounded by Matawa First Nations communities. This week, former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci, Ontario’s lead negotiator with the chiefs of the Matawa Tribal Council, began visiting the region in preparation for talks with Bob Rae, who will represent the native bands.
The goal of the summer program is also to reach the parents. For many, the notion of learning is linked to the grim memory of residential schools. Seeing young counsellors, many recruited from universities and colleges in the south, can help break that association. And when they return home, the counsellors themselves talk up the experience, the needs they saw and the changes that can come from just six weeks of focusing on reading skills.
“I find it important that some of the counsellors are from southern culture,” says Taka Hoy, a fourth-year health sciences student at the University of Ottawa. “We start a conversation when we’re back.”
In her second summer in Fort Hope, Ms. Hoy leads her charges through energetic sessions of spelling words with their bodies, stays up late baking them muffins for snack time and goes for evening runs down the main street, where kids hang out the windows of their homes shouting “Taka, Taka!” She also mentors newbie counsellors who can be shellshocked by the isolation – a Wasaya Airways plane drops them off on the gravel landing strip at the end of June and picks them up in mid-August.
The need for the programs continues to grow. While native communities struggle to increase basic literacy and high-school graduation rates, parents in the south demand iPads in schools. Elana Jackson, a counsellor who grew up in Toronto and worked for two summers at Kasabonika Lake First Nation, not far from James Bay, had one laptop for approximately 50 kids. On it, she set up a blog where they published their writing. And students from the Ontario College of Art and Design University have helped create videos with campers.
The isolation breeds problems, including substance abuse, particularly of prescription drugs. One study found that as much as 80 per cent of the population in the region that encompasses Fort Hope have used prescription drugs illicitly. Having outsiders come up to work at the camps can change the feeling of having been abandoned.
“The kids ask you, ‘Why are you here? Why did you come back?’” says Ms. Jackson, who is working on a master’s degree in early childhood studies at Ryerson University. “And you say, ‘I’m here because I care about you, I care about young people in the North.’”
If reading can help improve employment prospects, can it also address health and addiction problems? Ms. Campbell argues it can. “If you can’t read or write, then it leads to unpositive choices. If all those kids are good readers and writers they’ll be able to participate in the community’s development, they’ll manage their health.” The kids in camp can become counsellors themselves, maybe even band chiefs, she says. “This is not a three-years program, it’s a generation.”
Ms. Campbell hopes that lieutenant-governors across the country will follow the lead of Ontario Lieutenant-Governor David Onley, who has embraced the program he inherited from Mr. Bartleman, seeing literacy as a basic issue of accessibility.
But no one has higher ambitions for the summer camps than the counsellors. Ms. Jackson says she wishes every Canadian student had the opportunity to work on a reserve. “People have misconceptions about native communities,” she says. “This would build bridges between north and south, it would be a way to unite the country.”