Nunavut schools brace for book barrage

Ontario’s lieutenant governor campaigns to send reading material north

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Students in Nunavut’s schools can expect to find stacks of brand new children’s magazines, along with bundles of donated books, if Ontario’s lieutenant governor has his way.

James Bartleman has organized a book drive underway in Ontario right now, until the end of the month, intended to bring more books to Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, as well as Cree communities in Northern Quebec.

Bartleman, whose mother is Ojibwa, grew up in a small aboriginal community north of Toronto. He credits learning how to read for pulling him out of poverty and setting him on track for a successful career as a diplomat, followed by his present role as Lieutenant Governor of Ontario.

“My life was changed by the power of books,” he said. “Literacy and love of books was the key to personal development.”

He’s also familiar with just how low literacy levels are in Nunavut, after visiting Sanikiluaq in late September. That visit helped lead him to his present campaign.

A study done by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2005 found that half of those surveyed in Nunavut lacked the necessary skills of reading, writing and working with numbers to function properly in a government job.

A similar study done by the Nunavut Bureau of Statistics found 88 per cent of Inuit scored below the needed literacy level for government work. Almost 30 per cent of non-Inuit scored in the same category.

What could be more troubling is more than 80 per cent of Nunavut’s youth scored below the needed literacy level for employment in government.

The book drive follows a similar campaign Bartleman launched in 2004, which sent more than a million books to reserves in northern Ontario.

The book campaign also fits in with another initiative started by Bartleman, to “twin” each school in Nunavut with a school in Toronto, to encourage exchanges between north and south.

Books will be shipped up to Nunavut’s RCMP detachments, so officers can then deliver packages to each school in the territory, Bartleman said.

“Hopefully we’ll have them up by the end of February,” Bartleman said.

This year’s drive opened at Toronto’s First Nations school, with the help of singer Susan Aglukark, who says she’s pledged to help Bartleman however she can.

Aglukark said Nunavut’s children need an education to succeed in life.

“That comes from the power of knowledge: learning as much as we can,” she said.

Aglukark never spent much time in the school library of Rankin Inlet. It took her until high school, when she felt growing curiosity about the bigger world outside Nunavut, to crack open the pages of social studies books.

She credits that discovery for helping make her where she is today: a well-known musician.

She also encourages parents in Nunavut to support their children in school.

“I think we don’t spend enough time just sitting down with our children,” she said. “That’s a big part of childhood and growing up into their full potential.”

As for Bartleman, he reminds Nunavut residents that learning how to read can be a great leveller, and that “we’re all the same under the colour of our skin.”

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