THE BLOG

How I'm Working With First Nations in Ontario

07/26/2013 05:21 EDT | Updated 09/25/2013 05:12 EDT

Many Ontario kids were off to camp this summer for hiking, canoeing, and marshmallow roasting. Youngsters in our province's northern Aboriginal communities also set out for camp, but with a somewhat different agenda.

These campers took part in the Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Summer Reading Camps, where they hone literacy skills in addition to playing games and making crafts.

For many, "reading camp" might seem like an unenviable way to spend summer. But make no mistake, this isn't remedial school. My wife, Ruth-Ann, recently returned from a camp at Eabametoong First Nation and, as you can see in these photos and this video, participants are thoroughly enjoying the experience.

But why does reading figure so prominently in their summer fun?

Past mistakes, present-day costs

History, in part, provides the answer.

These kids are growing up in communities long relegated to the periphery of prosperity. A legacy of insufficient educational and economic opportunities for their ancestors has had well-known consequences: dilapidated infrastructure, unfathomable suicide rates, drug abuse, and persistent poverty.

Living conditions on some reserves are now so dismal that they are routinely likened to those of the Third World. According to a recent documentary by Ottawa film-maker Andrée Cazabon, it's not an unwarranted comparison.

Needless to say, youth literacy and education have not thrived in this environment.

Several recent initiatives have shed light on how we got here. One is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, a body which aims to document and communicate the experiences of former students in the residential school system.

In 2011, I hosted a cross-cultural dialogue with the commission and heard moving testimony detailing how forced enrolment in the schools devastated individual lives and corroded the fabric of Aboriginal societies. Listening to such accounts helps one understand why many First Nations communities now face daunting challenges.

These stories had to be heard and acknowledgements made. But their telling needed to mark a new beginning as well. As I stated at the aforementioned gathering: "Reconciliation involves the old and the new. It is about creating something new with full recognition of the past."

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Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Summer Reading Camps

The Crown and the Feather

The Crown has long had a special relationship with Canada's First Nations. It was with the Sovereign's proxies that many tribes originally signed treaties, and this irrevocably affirms their distinct status within Canada.

Unfortunately, the history is sometimes misinterpreted to mean that today's viceregal representatives have jurisdiction and authority over the management of those agreements. There have even been calls for me, in my capacity as Lieutenant Governor, to become directly involved in negotiations over obligations the treaties may entail.

As political science professor Emmett Macfarlane rightly points out in Maclean's, Canada's evolved constitutional framework doesn't allow for this. "The power to govern might be vested in the Crown," he writes, "but it is entrusted to the government to exercise on behalf of the people." Ultimately, matters of policy--whether related to Native affairs or not--are the purview of elected governments.

But this doesn't bar my office from honouring Crown connections with Aboriginal Canadians in other ways.

Writing a new chapter

My predecessor, the Honourable James Bartleman (himself a member of the Mnjikaning First Nation), was especially interested in reinvigorating the Crown's relationship with First Nations in Ontario.

He was dismayed by the appalling conditions on many northern reserves, but knew that the youth in these communities had the potential to turn things around. Equipped with education and training, they could chart a new course for their generation.

But high illiteracy and drop-out rates put such a future in doubt. One thing was clear: the kids needed enhanced opportunities for learning and literacy, especially ones that were relevant to their cultures and involved local mentors.

It was a simple proposition in principle, but not so easy to execute in remote northern communities with few books and in most cases, not a single library.

Mr. Bartleman asked Ontarians to fill this printed-page void, and they did. Working with First Nations leaders and various institutional partners, the Lieutenant Governor's office led collection drives that saw 1.5 million books delivered to young Aboriginal readers. Club Amick was also launched in partnership with the Southern Ontario Library Service to send the kids new titles each month.

But books were only the beginning. With help from Frontier College and Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy, the Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Summer Reading Camps were established to keep kids motivated and improve literacy skills while still enjoying the fun of camp.

When Mr. Bartleman's term ended and mine began, I felt it was essential to not let this momentum dissipate. We continued with two more book drives and regular visits to the camps. Now in its ninth season, the program is still going strong.

From books to bytes

The books were a good start, but in order to be successful in today's economy, youth need to be fluent in digital technology, not just the written word. Given the ubiquity of computers and smartphones, it's assumed that most will simply acquire this familiarity by osmosis. But that's not necessarily the case for a kid living on a northern reserve.

It was time to take Mr. Bartleman's vision digital.

To that end, my office has recently helped to foster a partnership between the Belinda Stronach Foundation's One Laptop Per Child Canada and Frontier College that will supply hundreds of personal laptops to Native students. The opportunity to master internet browsing, data management, and typing--all essential skills--will now be at their fingertips.

Additionally, we are working with Kobo and Free the Children to provide e-readers to literacy camp participants. With these devices in hand, kids will get a nearly inexhaustible source of reading material and a fun way to boost their technological savvy.

Breaking down silos, building bridges

These initiatives have demonstrated that non-Aboriginal Ontarians are willing and eager to collaborate with their indigenous neighbours in finding solutions to the problems of many First Nations communities.

Both groups have passion and commitment. What they lacked until recently, however, was a regular opportunity to meet, share ideas, and identify avenues for co-operation.

My office fulfils this need by hosting the Lieutenant Governor's Aboriginal Forum, a periodic gathering co-chaired by Deloitte and Nipissing University for all interested in promoting the well-being of Ontario's First Nations communities.

In December, I presided over the inaugural Forum and was delighted to see productive exchanges and networking amongst Aboriginal leaders, NGOs, and others concerned. Two subsequent meetings drew new participants and fresh perspectives. More are planned.

Forging a new relationship through action

Ontarians want a society in which each citizen has a chance to fulfil his or her potential. Unfortunately, that opportunity still doesn't exist for many of our province's Aboriginal citizens.

If the literacy and digital initiatives I've described are any example, efforts by persons and organizations outside of government can have a powerful impact in addressing this.

The key to success lies not only in marshalling interest and resources, but in developing trust and understanding with First Nations partners. Listening and dialogue is essential to seeing good intentions translated into tangible lasting results. I encourage all Ontarians -- both Native and non-Native -- to reach out to one another and explore how to build this basis for respectful and inclusive partnerships.

Ultimately, working together will not only hasten progress, but elevate the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Ontario to a new level of friendship and respect.