06/21/2013 05:43 EDT | Updated 08/21/2013 05:12 EDT

Celebrating Aboriginal Literacy and Learning

National Aboriginal Day, June 21, is a day of recognition that celebrates the cultures and contributions of Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. In celebration, here are a few key points about literacy and essential skills that have broad application in supporting better outcomes for First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

National Aboriginal Day, June 21, is a day of recognition that celebrates the cultures and contributions of Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples. It is, fittingly, the first in a series of special days that includes Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (June 24 in Québec) and Canadian Multiculturalism Day (June 27), wrapping up with Canada Day on July 1.

From the perspective of a national literacy network, National Aboriginal Day brings to mind the literacy challenges faced by many First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, but it is also an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful work that is being done across the country to improve literacy and essential skills levels among Canada's first peoples.

Canada's indigenous people are incredibly diverse and populate all corners of the country, from the most remote communities to our most densely inhabited urban cores. Speaking a multitude of languages and living within all types of communities and virtually all of Canada's political jurisdictions, generalizing about Aboriginal people is risky -- especially for someone who has no Aboriginal ancestry. But there are some generally accepted facts about Canada's Aboriginal population that are receiving a lot of attention as Canadian businesses and policy makers focus on our country's escalating "skills crisis."

The key demographic facts are that Canada's Aboriginal population is growing rapidly and it is very young. As the Canadian population as a whole ages, Canada's employers are beginning to look to First Nations, Métis and Inuit to fill the skilled jobs that will be left vacant by the wave of retirements that is just beginning. As the only significant driver of population growth, aside from immigration, Aboriginal Canadians are increasingly being viewed as a valuable human resource for a skills-hungry labour market.

While there are recognized and well-researched geographic, historical and cultural barriers to education and employment for Aboriginal Canadians, there has also been great progress on addressing these barriers and developing programs and approaches that work. In celebration of National Aboriginal Day, here are a few key points about literacy and essential skills that have broad application in supporting better outcomes for First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

Family and community -- The legacy of the residential school system includes intergenerational effects on literacy levels. Negative experiences with formal education can make adults reluctant to participate in classroom-based programs, but everyone wants their children to succeed. There are strong links between parents' literacy levels and the success of their children in school.

Family literacy programs offered in Aboriginal community-based centres and/or community colleges are successfully engaging urban Aboriginal people, providing materials and activities that are culturally appropriate while at the same time strengthening communities. These programs can also be a first step for adults reentering the education system.

Traditional skills programs are a way to bring generations together to share Aboriginal literacies as they are embedded in the knowledge and language of the community. Through teaching and learning about traditional crafts or skills on the land, well-designed programs can engage elders and youth in building and reinforcing each other's skills. These programs are especially valuable in northern and remote communities where appropriate print-based materials may be unavailable or difficult to access.

Supporting Aboriginal youth -- Programs for Aboriginal youth often find positive ways to integrate literacy and essential skills elements into popular activities. An ongoing project involving northern literacy coalitions is examining these practices and will share information about successful youth engagement programs, when the work is completed, so they can be replicated or adapted by other communities.

Many Aboriginal youth must travel great distances from home and family to continue their education. Working to improve the odds for success in formal education, some secondary and post-secondary institutions are now building cultural supports into their programs with the aim of improving students' level of comfort and increasing the rates of program completion.

Workplace-based learning - Welcoming and valuing participants is one of the markers of success for Aboriginal education and training programs, regardless of the delivery agency. In workplace programs, this often means valuing and recognizing the different life experiences of Aboriginal workers. One example of this is recognizing listening as an essential skill, reflecting different ways of learning. For some workplaces, it is important for employers to take action against racism and ensure that misunderstandings in the workplace are addressed fairly.

The most successful workplace learning programs engage the Aboriginal community in program design and delivery, and work in partnership with a broad range of stakeholders. It is important for the learners to have a strong sense of control and ownership of the program, and to ensure that teachers and trainers are knowledgeable and sensitive to the unique needs of the learners.

Without question, investing in literacy and essential skills upskilling makes sense as a policy direction for many reasons, but pragmatically it is the human resource potential of Canada's Aboriginal population that should be driving investment. This doesn't mean that providing skilled workers will be the only outcome. The evidence is clear: higher levels of literacy and essential skills lead to higher earnings, better health outcomes and increased civic engagement. Improved literacy levels can be a key contributor to self-determination for Canada's First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

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