Ask Kaydince Muckuck about summer camp and she'll tell you about all the fun she's having.
"It's kind of like school because we're learning stuff, but it's fun so not really like school," nine-year-old Kaydince says.
But Jemima Cutfeet, principal of Aglace Chapman Education Centre, the lone school in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), has a different take on the merits of the aboriginal literacy camp run here during the summer. It works, she says.
"We can tell the difference between a student who has gone to the camp and a student who didn't immediately when school opens in September," Ms. Cutfeet says.
The students who have gone to the camp, say teachers in this community, remember better their lessons from the previous year and are showing gains in reading levels. In fact, Ms. Cutfeet credits the literacy camps as the single most important factor in determining whether a student continues to perform at the grade level they should be at.
More than that, the community's Ontario regional chief believes the camp's real success stems from pairing a northern counsellor with an import from the south.
At KI, a community of 1,200 located 300 kilometres south of Hudson Bay, 19-year-old Marc Lombardo from Toronto and his two fellow counsellors work closely with Ida Sakakeep, an Oji-Cree counsellor who also works during the school year as an educational assistant.
Mr. Lombardo isn't a teacher or an education expert. But the fact that he is a university student is one of his biggest assets, says Assembly of First Nations Ontario regional chief Stan Beardy.
"We need those positive role models for these children ... and these counsellors from the south, they have grown up with the idea that graduating from high school, going to university and getting a job is what's expected from you," he says. "For them, that's normal and that's what we want all first nations students to also think like."
That isn't always the case, Mr. Beardy says, in aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario where many adults are on welfare and an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse persists.
"At least when the kids are in camp they're being supervised," says KI deputy chief Darryl Sainnawap.
Some 70 similar camps are run across the country by Frontier College, a literacy advocacy organization, in remote fly-in aboriginal communities where schools are under tremendous pressure to provide quality education despite a high turnaround in teachers and lack of adequate federal funding for schools and libraries. Literacy is low in these communities – only 56.3 per cent of aboriginal youth graduate from high school compared with 76.9 per cent of non-aboriginals in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.
Many first nations want full control over the curriculum being taught at schools – a remnant of residential schooling where they were stripped of their languages and culture – so this model of bringing in non-native counsellors is a significant departure from the norm. The southern counsellors work closely with their northern counterparts and follow their lead in incorporating native traditions, games and language into the literacy camps.
Even if more northern counsellors are available, Mr. Beardy still wants these "outsiders" to come to coach the young first-nation campers.
"We want to show them that there is a whole world outside their community ... that there are jobs and successful people and economic opportunities," he says.
Seven years after the program launched in Ontario with the help of then lieutenant-governor James Bartleman, preliminary data is showing these campers, aged four to 15, are reaping the benefits during the school year.
National data, tracked by Frontier College, shows that 65 per cent of campers reported that they read to their parents and siblings more after having gone through the sessions. After camp, 80 per cent said their reading improved, with 60 per cent and 55 per cent believing their writing and spelling improved respectively.
Research has shown that students should read a minimum of five books to retain their reading skills during the summer holidays. The average camper at a literacy camp in Saskatchewan read 10.7 books in July and August 2011, compared to 4.3 books in summer of 2010.
Anecdotally, educators are saying they too benefit from the support of southern counsellors.
"I'm sometimes shy about reading ... maybe someone will laugh at me," says Ms. Sakakeep, a northern counsellor and teaching assistant in KI. "But they [the southern counsellors] always have new ideas to make it fun. We learn from them."
Each camp costs approximately $30,000 to run for six to eight weeks, including supplying new books and crafts as well as paying the counsellors and their airfare. Frontier College partners with local governments and private donors for funding to provide these camps when they are invited by the band councils. The local aboriginal community must also provide accommodations for the counsellors.
New communities are signing up every year based on word of mouth, a sign the program is successful in aboriginal communities, says Frontier College's president Sherry Campbell.
"There's a lot of aversion and stigma associated with the education system because of residential schooling," Ms. Campbell says, "but this is summer camp … so I think parents and kids see it differently."