Indigenous-led literacy program in B.C. helps residential school survivors learn to read and write

At Vancouver Island University in Classroom 105, a dozen Indigenous elders are putting pencil to paper, seizing the opportunity learn how to read and write -- many for the first time.

“It’s a whole different world for us,” Linda Jack, an elder and organizer of the program, told CTV News.

They’re all survivors of residential or day schools, but none learned to read or write while at the schools. Many residential school survivors experienced physical and sexual abuse in the school system, designed to assimilate Indigenous children, but on top of the trauma they suffered, many received little of the education they were supposed to be given.

“They taught me everything but what they were supposed to teach me,” Florence Marshall, one of the elders participating in the new literacy program, told CTV News.

As a little girl, Marshall attended residential school at St. Michael’s in Alert Bay, B.C., and also went to the Nanaimo Indian Hospital, where children receiving treatment for things such as tuberculosis were also abused.

Now, at 68 years old, she’s re-tracing her education, this time with support.

“It was only a dream to come up here, now look at me, I’m in class, and I'm proud,” Marshall said. “I love it. They treat us so good."

Jack came up with the idea from her own challenges with literacy. Her father was a residential school survivor, and she attended day school, which didn’t provide her with a proper education.

“It really hit me that […] I’m not the only one who doesn’t know how to read,” Jack said.

She then approached the university about starting the literacy circle program for others like her.

“This is a game changer,” said Deborah Saucier, president and vice-chancellor of Vancouver Island University.

The students enrolled in this pilot project are all 60 years of age or older, and the lessons are tailored to each person to go above and beyond what would be supplied by a regular literacy program for adults.

“Some folks, they haven’t been back on a school campus for a very long time and this can be traumatic,” Saucier pointed out.

A news release posted on VIU’s website in September emphasized that despite horrific experiences in the education system in Canada, these elders still want to become literate, and are intent on getting the education they deserve.

Jean Maltesen, dean of Academic and Career Preparation, said in the release that: “Despite their horrible experiences with the education system, they want to be educated.

“They want to be able to read to their grandchildren, read recipes, drive a car, fill out forms and participate in other activities that require reading, writing or arithmetic,” she said.

The program offers culturally sensitive support, school supplies, rides and lunch to help students feel comfortable and safe. The seven-week program is free and is taught by an Indigenous instructor who had worked with the university for years.

“Literacy’s a human right,” said Samantha Letourneau, executive director of Literacy Central Vancouver Island, which is collaborating with VIU to create the program. “Everyone should have access to reading, writing [and] numeracy.”

Despite its apparent successes, organizers say the program is at risk if they don’t get sufficient funding. Those who wish to help the program can get in contact with Literacy Central Vancouver Island, Letourneau said.

“I really want to get my education,” Jack said. “I really have a lot of goals.”

Goals she’s chasing after a lifetime of not knowing what she was missing.