Education Today (Ontario Public School Boards Association), Spring 2008

By John Schofield

The carefully printed notes are short, but the gratitude they express is sincere and touchingly sweet. Penned by aboriginal children in some of Northern Ontario’s most isolated and impoverished communities, the cards are addressed to an adorable cartoon beaver named Amick. Many are adorned with bright, beautifully drawn pictures. The children are members of Club Amick, a book club established by former lieutenant-governor James Bartleman in 2006 and named after the Oji-Cree word for beaver. Through the program, children from 5 to 10 years old can choose four age-appropriate books a year to add to their own fledgling collections. Reading their letters paints a compelling picture of just how much the books mean to them. “Thanks so much for giving us books,” reads one card from Shania in Attawapiskat, Ont. “I love reading. At home I read, at school I read, at my Kookum’s I read, during plane rides, during a taxi ride, at my friend’s house, and whenever I’m bored. Anywhere, anytime!”
Club Amick was one of four literacy initiatives launched by Bartleman during his tenure as lieutenant governor from 2002 to 2007. The programs also included a book drive for First Nations in Northern Ontario, a twinning project involving aboriginal and non-aboriginal schools, and aboriginal literacy summer camps. Bartleman’s efforts benefited thousands of First Nation children. But as the end of his term approached last September, the future of the programs was up in the air.
When he learned last July, however, that he would become the new lieutenant-governor, David Onley decided within days to keep the programs alive. As a survivor of childhood polio and post-polio syndrome, Onley is known more as an advocate for people with disabilities. But as the father of three sons and a former education reporter for Toronto’s CITY-TV, he was also well aware of the critical role books play in the success of children. And he knew, too, how Bartleman’s programs had attracted overwhelming support from people across Ontario. “The first formal phone call I received after my appointment was announced was from Mr. Bartleman,” recalls Onley. “The first thing I told him after thanking him was that I wanted to continue his literacy initiatives. He was positively taken aback and pleasantly surprised.”
By promoting aboriginal literacy, Onley is convinced that he is helping to save lives. According to some estimates, the residents of Ontario’s most northern native communities have made roughly 3,000 suicide attempts over the past decade. About 280 of those were successful, and an alarming proportion involved children. The lieutenant-governor’s office does not have the the ability or the authority to address the profound social issues that affect these communities, says Onley. But fostering a love of books and the basic ability to read them can have an enormous impact. “Books change lives, they just do,” says Onley. “Every single one of us who had any degree of success can remember those one or two key books that helped direct our career path.”
No one knows the power of books better than James Bartleman. The career diplomat’s story is the stuff of legend. A member of the Mnjikaning First Nation by birth, Bartleman grew up in meagre circumstances amid the plush resorts and upscale vacation homes of Ontario’s Muskoka Lakes region. Neither his aboriginal mother nor his non-native father finished elementary school and, at one point, the family lived in a shack near the village dump in Port Carling. The racism that too often typified small-town Ontario in the 1950s alienated the family even more. Bartleman was kept back in Grade 2, and by today’s standards, he says, he would have been considered a child at risk.
But a comic book he found in the local dump helped spark a love for reading. It might have been genetic: His day-labourer dad, despite his limited education, was also an avid reader. And his paternal grandfather, a Scottish immigrant, often urged him to continue his education. Bartleman remembers following his father to the local library, where the librarian gave him a card and encouraged him to read. He recalls reading many of the volumes over and over again. “My ticket out of a life of poverty was reading,” says Bartleman. “It opened up a world of imagination and new possibilities. With reading, I began to do well in school. I was prepared to take advantage of opportunities as I went along.”
There would be many. As a teen, Bartleman tended lawns in Port Carling to earn extra money. One summer, an American customer named Robert Clause, an executive with Pittsburgh Paints, observed the young man’s love for books and his strong work ethic, and offered to subsidize the cost of his post-secondary education. Bartleman went on to study at the University of Western Ontario and later joined Canada’s foreign service. During his 35-year career as a diplomat, he served as Canadian ambassador to Cuba, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Israel, as well as high commissioner to Australia and South Africa. He also acted as a foreign policy advisor to former prime minister Jean Chretien. He was appointed as Ontario’s first aboriginal representative of the Queen in 2002. “When I became lieutenant-governor,” he says, “I saw that those possibilities were not open to a great segment of the population in the North, and I was struck by the injustice of it all.”
Bartleman made the welfare of aboriginal youth one of his three main causes, with a special focus on literacy. He also dedicated his five-year term to fighting racism and, based on his own experience with depression, to raising awareness of mental health issues. But Bartleman says he’s especially proud of the programs he has launched for aboriginal young people in Ontario’s far north. “These kids, they suffer and no one cares, and they hang themselves and nobody cares,” he says. “I wanted to inform people about what was going on. And I think unless you educate a people, they will always remain poor. They will always remain in a state of despair.”
The lieutenant-governor launched his first literacy initiative in 2004, and was more successful in mobilizing Ontarians than perhaps any vice-regal representative in recent memory. Bartleman began with humble hopes of collecting 50,000 good used books to send to 26 remote aboriginal communities accessible only by plane for much of the year. People across the province ended up donating 1.2 million books. After sorting through the huge haul, 850,000 quality used books were distributed to 134 First Nations and 26 Native Friendship Centres across Ontario, delivered with help from the Ontario Provincial Police, the Department of National Defence, the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a group of South Asian professionals, and a variety of ground and air transportation carriers. A second book drive in 2007 brought in another 700,000 books.
In April 2005, Bartleman announced a second program designed to promote literacy and build bridges between aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth. The Lieutenant Governor’s School Twinning Program linked 100 aboriginal schools with 85 public schools across Ontario and 15 Catholic schools. The Ontario Principals’ Council took on the task of overseeing the initiative. It was later extended to Nunavut, and the territory’s 42 schools were matched with public and Catholic schools in Toronto.
Andrew Gold, the principal at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto and the city’s Native Learning Centre, remembers discussing the concept of twinning with Bartleman during a trip to Northern Ontario in late 2004. The lieutenant governor had invited Gold and Toronto principal Wayne Copp, now retired, to accompany him so they could gain a better understanding of life for First Nations communities in Ontario’s far north. “The trip was just so eye-opening,” remembers Gold. “The people were so warm and welcoming, but being in that remote environment had so many challenges – isolation, depression, health challenges. I could see where trying to build connectedness would help.”
Jarvis Collegiate was paired with Pelican Falls First Nations High School in Sioux Lookout. In the first year, says Gold, the partnership was a busy one. Teachers at Jarvis helped staff at Pelican Falls develop music curriculum. Students in a First Nations identity course at Jarvis started a blog that allowed teens at both schools to share their thoughts and experiences. On one occasion, students from Pelican Falls attending a cultural event in Toronto stopped by Jarvis for a visit. Gold says staffing changes in the past year have put the relationship on the back burner, but he hopes it will be revived. At other schools, the twinning program remains vibrant with pen pal programs, exchanges, annual drives to collect books and other educational resources, and aboriginal awareness days at non-aboriginal schools.
The Lieutenant Governor’s Aboriginal Literacy Summer Camps are also going strong, thanks in large part to a phenomenal fund-raising effort by Bartleman that netted $7.5 million. The initiative also receives funding from the Ontario government. The money will ensure the camps continue for at least five years. Administered by Frontier College, Canada’s oldest literacy organization, the program last year involved 38 three-week camps held in July and August in 30 remote First Nations. A total of 91 aboriginal and non-aboriginal counsellors and about 2,200 children aged 6 to 16 participated. Many counsellors travelled more than 2,000 kilometres from their homes in southern Ontario to northern fly-in communities such as Kingfisher Lake, Fort Albany, and Muskrat Dam. “This is quite different than anything I’ve ever done,” counsellor Caitlin Parsons, a Toronto high school student, told the Toronto Star in 2005, the camps’ inaugural year. “But I already know this project is working because the children show up every day and follow us home at night – and we manage to sneak reading and writing into everything we do.”
Club Amick, with about 5,000 children on its membership list, is the lieutenant governor’s largest literacy program for aboriginal youth. To keep it running for at least five years, Bartleman helped raise more than $1 million. Club Amick also receives funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation and numerous private donors. The Toronto-based Southern Ontario Library System (SOLS) manages the program for the lieutenant governor’s office, in consultation with Ontario Library System North. “We feel so proud of this program,” says Daryl Novak, the director of operations for SOLS. “While there are lots of initiatives to get books into communities, this one is about carefully picking books that are totally suitable for reading levels and, if possible, by Canadian authors. These are quality books.”
By sending out brand new books and a colourful newsletter four times a year, the official description says, the club keeps the “literacy light burning” in camp participants in the months after the summer. To encourage children to build their own collections, a nameplate is placed in each book with the child’s name. Each season, the club administrators pick a theme and choose books to match. The theme last summer was “Earth,” and the book titles included Hurricane! by Jonathan London and Henri Sorensen, Mud Puddle by Robert Munsch and Sami Suomalainen, and One Windy Wednesday, by Phyllis Root and Helen Craig. “If you live in a small town in southern Ontario, you still have access to a range of books through interlibrary loans,” says Novak. “In these remote aboriginal communities, they rarely have libraries. The schools have some sort of library, but it’s a question of how good the resources are. Club Amick gives children a book of their own.”
Now, with Lieutenant Governor David Onley’s support, children in Ontario’s remote First Nations communities will continue to experience the power of literacy through summer camps, Club Amick, school twinning, and book drives. The amiable vice-regal representative wasted little time by launching his very first book drive in January, collecting more than 15,000 new books. The literacy initiatives fit with Onley’s commitment to remove all barriers to success, no matter what form they take. He hopes to build on Bartleman’s legacy by expanding the programs to include computer literacy. To plan the details, he has formed an advisory group that includes a former Microsoft executive, a retired principal, as well as software and technology experts. Onley believes that computer literacy, like books, will open a whole new world to aboriginal youth. “We want to give these kids opportunities to pursue higher education or to stay in their communities and help them grow,” he says. “Give a child the skills and the opportunity to learn and you’ve given that person options in their life.” And add to that perhaps the most important gift of all – hope.