06/05/2012 10:25 EDT | Updated 08/05/2012 05:12 EDT

Frontier College literacy conference told education will impact justice system

WINNIPEG - Justice Murray Sinclair knows many of the accused who stand before him have never read their own signed statements to police.

"They can’t read," Sinclair told a conference on literacy and youth involved in the criminal justice system.

Sinclair, who chairs the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said that many aboriginal families mistrust and disrespect the school system, and their children are not comfortable in school because of older generations’ experiences in residential schools.

"They weren’t really educational institutions for the longest time," said Sinclair. "The way people in public schools were educated about aboriginal people is also having an impact on what we’re trying to do."

The conference was organized by Frontier College, a national literacy organization which held similar sessions Tuesday in Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto, and Halifax.

University of Winnipeg president Lloyd Axworthy asked Sinclair if he ever considered giving a shorter sentence to a young person willing to enter a literacy training program.

"As tempting as it is, it’s ethically wrong to do that," said Sinclair, because there’s no way of knowing if a program is appropriate for an individual’s needs.

"We don’t know enough about that particular circumstance. An amazing lack of information comes to us as judges," Sinclair said.

Identify and attack illiteracy early, before children even enter school, was the panel’s consensus.

Frontier College President Sherry Campbell said researchers have found that 45 per cent of juvenile delinquents had reading problems as early as Grade 2.

"Some of our programs are successful because they’re not (conducted) in schools," Campbell said. "We’re embedding literacy in a non-school environment that’s fun."

Prince Albert Police Chief Dale McFee, president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said there’s no point in convicting someone and then "tell them what they have to do to fix themselves.

"If it’s predictable, it’s preventable," said McFee. "Why are we letting everyone get there?"

McFee, who told the conference that he is Metis, said literacy problems afflict all marginalized young people.

Sinclair said far too many aboriginal families don’t have books in the house to provide children a love of storytelling and reading, and First Nations don’t have money to establish libraries — when school budgets get cut, libraries and books are among the first casualties, he said.

McFee said that a one per cent national tax on alcohol could produce billions of dollars for literacy programs and books.

(Winnipeg Free Press)