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Coalition supports literacy programs
Native people living in Ontario who are struggling with literacy problems don't have to struggle alone, thanks to the efforts of the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition (ONLC).
The coalition has been around since 1988, providing networking opportunities and support to Native literacy practitioners and learners across the province.
"The main goal of our Native literacy programs is to empower Native people to make healthier choices, and to help with skills upgrading," said Ellen Paterson, executive director of the coalition.
"We serve 26 programs, from Fort Francis to Cornwall, and everything in between," she said. Some of those programs are located on reserve, some operate out of friendship centres, and some are stand-alone programs with their own boards of directors.
"The services that we offer are practitioner training, research development projects, community awareness. We also have a newsletter that we do quarterly."
The coalition does advocacy and lobbying in the area of literacy, and provides potential learners with referrals to programs and resources that can help to improve their literacy levels.
The focus of the coalition's work is on adult literacy, with funding coming from the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. The ONLC also gets special project funding from the National Literacy Secretariat.
" What we try to do is to enable the adults to go back to work, be able to read, help their children with their homework and understand what is going on in school. And that's what our programs do," Paterson said.
The programs are designed for adults with literacy problems, including those that may be fluent in their own Native languages, but not strong in English.
"And it's not just reading. It's writing, math, computer skills, that type of thing."
One of the challenges that organizations such as the ONLC face in their attempts to improve literacy rates is reaching the people that need their help, and that problem exists for all literacy organizations, not just the Native ones.
"We all have basically that same problem, reaching out to people. Because they feel that it's a stigma. So if we could call it by anything else but literacy, we might be able to do a better job at what we're doing. But it's just a real problem."
One of the mottos used by the ONLC is "Empowering the Spirit, Ensuring Survival," which the coalition does in part by taking a more holistic approach to literacy.
"We try and do it as a holistic approach to skill development, making sure that individuals are respected as a whole person who is part of the family and the community and the nation," Paterson explained. "When the person comes in through the door, if they've made that first step to come through that door, they probably have a lot of problems that we have to deal with first before literacy can even be looked at."
Another thing that sets the programs offered by the coalition members apart from other literacy programs is that they have taken a culturally based approach to literacy training.
"I think that ensures the respect for the learner. And I think it also takes into account prior experiences and learning, and I think that's important too," Paterson said.
This culturally based approach includes things like taking traditional crafts from the region the program is based in, and using them as teaching tools.
Working to improve literacy rates among adults can also translate into improved skills among children, by providing them with role models and by giving parents the tools they need to help their children learn and improve their skills. But Paterson would like to see the coalition do more in the future to directly target younger learners.
The programs operating under the coalition already have a few programs geared at younger learners, such as homework clubs after school, but expanding those programs to reach more children and young adults would be dependent on getting funding for such an expansion.
Pateron thinks its important that these younger learners be reached, especially given recent statistics that show the country's Aboriginal population is younger than the country's population as a whole, and is growing at a faster rate.
"Our children need to be able to read and write, because they're going to be the backbone of the communities and of Ontario, and Canada as a whole too. Because those are the ones that are going to go into our jobs and be able to run the country. And so I think that it's a real important thing that we are able to get the literacy."
The need for literacy programs directed at youth becomes even more important when you consider the fact that many students-both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-are leaving the school system without the literacy skills they need.
"We'd like to do more and we are looking into that, to be able to get alternative funding, to be able to do family literacy, to be able to do more of these homework clubs, be able to help an Aboriginal student who has been to school and is just having some problems," she said.
"I think it's really important, because if we don't help the children, we're going to be in the same problem 10 years, 20 years, down the road again. So we need to stop the cycle ... and to be able to help those young children, but also the teenagers that are coming out of high school. So it's really important to do that."
For more information about the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition, or to find out how to contact a Native literacy program in your area, call the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition at 1-800-971-2255.
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