At a volunteer orientation late last year, I learned that an estimated one in four adults in Yellowknife is functionally illiterate. That means that 4,000 adults here cannot read this newspaper.
That they are only able to read and write at a grade four level is not a reflection on them but an education system that failed them miserably.
Last year, a consulting firm out of Winnipeg came up with the wild idea of turning Aurora College into an institution that would attract students from around the world thus turning the college into a money maker rather than the sinking ship it is. But why don’t we start with the basics which emphasizes educating Northerners, which was the original intent of the college anyway.
It is no wonder that the north’s rate of illiteracy is so high considering that residential schools were allowed to flourish here for so long and that most educators only come North for a year or two to gain experience. They do not put in the long term commitment necessary for people especially in the communities to help First Nations trust a system that has caused so much inter-generational trauma. There is little doubt that this can be a challenge.
When Alfred Moses called for a review of the college a couple years ago, it was strongly suggested in the early stages that more effort be put in to bolstering satellite education in the communities to enhance and increase educational opportunities there so that people would not have to give up their housing and support systems to move to larger centres where they often flounder. This support is crucial to the success of First Nations people who are still subjected to racism and isolation far worse than other students in larger centers. Study after study has shown that at the very least, First Nations students need the support of strong friendship centers if they are to succeed when away from home. And making that move could cost them their housing. This is not the answer. Satellite education, something this government suggests it will look into, is one of them.
Somehow, a new emphasis on this tool was lost in the election and cabinet shuffle and the idea of a polytechnic school was born. But that is not expected to materialize for six more years, if ever.
Six years? People need help now.
If we can provide more tutoring services during the interim both at the volunteer and government funded level, it will mean that more marginalized people will be able to fill out application forms, type out resumes and apply the reading and writing skills necessary to be gainfully employed. We also know that education does wonders for self-esteem giving people the confidence they need to work. Why aren’t we doing that?
Further, with the dismal rate of adult literacy in Yellowknife where there should be an abundance of resources, it is obvious that more effort is needed to increase availability to basic education here, too.
Currently, tutoring services are available through the NWT Literacy Council, Aurora College, Native Women’s Centre and Tree of Peace but the number of people they are able to help is limited as determined by staffing numbers, government funding and time required to train and work with volunteers.
As a community, we can do more. After all, money earmarked for these programs promises good returns as it helps people get jobs, thus pay income tax and relieve the stress on the social assistance programs. It’s a win-win situation.
We don’t always need grand schemes to improve unhealthy situations. Sometimes it just takes a little effort at the grass roots level. We always say that giving money to people who are on the streets or who do not have much is a questionable support. Providing them with more educational opportunities shows that as a community we care and as one great teacher said, teaching them how to fish allows them to take care of themselves indefinitely, and not just for one meal.
We need the GNWT to step up with increased staff funding and volunteers willing to donate an hour or two a week to tutor. A little effort can go a long way.