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The Shocking Contributor To Crime in Canada

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After passing out from a cocktail of pills, Sally awoke to find a friend dead beside her. She knew she had to change. She was only 15.

It would not be an easy path.

She'd spent her early years in and out of shelters, cared for by a mom who was a drug addict. Sally`s education had been sporadic. She could neither read nor write.

When she was 14, the Children's Aid Society took her away from her mom. She fled the Oshawa group-home where she'd been placed; on the streets she turned to drugs.

But seeing her friend dead was like a slap in the face.

"I felt like an adult, it was so hard I blamed myself for his death. I knew I had to change my life."

Change began with learning to read.

Illiteracy is a common thread in the stories of troubled Aboriginal youth like Sally. Manitoba Justice Murray Sinclair, the appointed Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and a judge for almost 25 years, estimates three quarters of the offenders who appear in Canada's courts are functionally illiterate.

Aboriginal youth are disproportionately represented in the justice system. Aboriginal youth comprise 34 per cent of the youth in our prisons but only six per cent of Canada's youth population.

Studies show most don't make it past Grade 8.

"I can't tell you the number of Aboriginal people I grew up with who did not complete high school, who didn't even go to high school. That helps explain why there are so many Aboriginal people caught up in the justice system," Sinclair observed.

Experts like Sinclair and Sherry Campbell, President of Frontier College, want to change the way Canada thinks about youth delinquency. The solution, they say, starts with reading and writing.

"We have been told that literacy is not a crime prevention strategy. That's ridiculous. Literacy is one of the biggest ways to prevent crime," Campbell argues. Frontier College works in more than 60 First Nations communities across Canada delivering literacy programs for kids.

Justice Sinclair cites a study conducted in Norway which found that every dollar spent on education saves seven dollars on policing.

Frontier College is hosting conferences across the country to get educators, police, judges, policy makers and others talking about the key role of literacy in youth crime prevention.

Crime prevention through literacy begins at the earliest stages, when kids first learn to read.

"By the time they're in the system, we've already really failed them," says Campbell.

This can prove difficult in Aboriginal families where books are not a regular part of the life and culture. Most reserve communities lack libraries.

"If you're not making your rent, books aren't high on what you're bringing into the household," notes Campbell.

The Martin Aboriginal Education Initiative (MAEI) Model Schools project works with two Ontario First Nations reserves to improve reading and writing in their band-operated schools. Founded by former Prime Minister Paul Martin, MAEI is dedicated to improving education and opportunities for Canada's Aboriginal peoples.

"Literacy is the most critical skill our children learn in school. We need to ensure that Aboriginal children are not left behind -- that begins with knowing how to read and write," Martin told us.

Frontier College is getting young Aboriginal kids interested in reading by making it fun at summer literacy camps. "Kids who had never read a book before are eager to get up and go to these camps," says Campbell.

The camps even get the kids' parents engaged in reading. Campbell says she sees the adults showing up early for drop-offs and pick-ups so they can watch and participate with their child's reading activities.

For older Aboriginal youth with literacy problems, summer camps and schools don't hold the answer. Campbell notes many Aboriginal young offenders do not want to go back to school and face the social stigma of having been in prison.

For these youth, Campbell says the best way to get them literate is through programs that provide individual attention and target reading and writing to the youth's interests and what they want to achieve, even if it's a trade like carpentry or auto repair.

At 19, Sally wants to start a career in the fashion industry. With that goal in mind, a Frontier College program is teaching her the literacy skills she needs to get into a college program for fashion management.

For Aboriginal youth like Sally, literacy holds the key to escaping a life of despair in the justice system to a life of hope and opportunity.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free The Children, and are authors of the new book Living Me to We: The Guide for Socially Conscious Canadians.