Elder ‘U’nihi-ya (Catherine) Jim sits in her truck as she speaks to journalist Julie Chadwick about the Elder literacy program.
Elder ‘U’nihi-ya (Catherine) Jim says she often experienced headaches in the past when she tried to do school work due to her negative experiences with teachers, but says this time it “feels different.” Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

At this Indigenous Elders’ literacy circle, survivors find healing

'We’re not going to be walking around in the dark anymore,' says founder, Cowichan Tribes Elder and survivor Linda Jack.
Oct 22, 2021

This story shares information about residential “schools.” The Indian Residential School Survivor Society’s Crisis Line can be reached any time at 1-866-925-4419.


The first day in The Literacy Circle, a new Indigenous Elders’ literacy program at Vancouver Island University, meant a new experience for Elder student ‘U’nihi-ya (Catherine) Jim: For the first time, she felt encouraged to pursue her education.

“[Years ago] I went back to school and did some upgrading, and when I was doing that, the instructor told me that he didn’t think I was ever going to amount to anything except being a housekeeper. And that discouraged me, so I quit,” she says.

“I’ve always been discouraged by the words that people have said to me when I did try to go back [to school]. And right here, it’s like, ‘We’re here to support you.’ Wow. I’ve never heard that,” says Jim, who is a day school survivor from Cowichan Tribes and is currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. 

Under the guise of education, the Canadian government and churches operated residential and day “schools” in a push to assimilate Indigenous children. There were 18 federally-run residential schools and 100 day schools in B.C.

As a result, about 200,000 Indigenous people across Canada like Jim were forcibly sent to day schools in addition to the 150,000 who were sent to residential schools, where they were denied an inclusive and meaningful education. 

The Literacy Circle aims to give Indigenous Elders and residential, day “school” and ‘60s Scoop survivors the opportunity to learn basic skills like reading and writing that they missed out on in their youth in a “​​safe and self-paced environment.” It’s tuition-free and runs over the course of seven weeks.

It all started with Cowichan Tribes Elder Linda Jack’s own determination to learn how to read and write, as IndigiNews reported last year. Over time, during discussions with her close friend Doug Savory, she talked about her struggles to find a literacy program that was the right fit for her. Many of the programs started at a higher educational level than she was comfortable with, and brought up feelings of shame and frustration. 

Elder Linda Jack smiles and celebrates the opening of The Literacy Circle at VIU
Vancouver Island University’s Indigenous Elders’ literacy circle started as a result of Elder Linda Jack’s determination, but she says she’s not finished yet, and wants the program to spread across the country. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Related: Cowichan Elder reclaiming her education after day school trauma

In her journey to find a class that was both suited to older learners and those starting at a very beginner level, Jack realized two things: that she was going to have to make this program happen herself, and that other Elders like Jim were struggling with the exact same problem.

“We got talking about our school days and education, how much we lacked in our education. We never completed any grades. I told her, ‘Yeah I did my assessment and realized I was only at Grade 4,’” says Jim. “It really upset me, because I couldn’t help my own children when they came home with homework.” 

Jack discovered that like herself, many Elders had struggled in silence without basic literacy skills, were unable to read things like road signs or product labels, and were too ashamed to reach out. The other hurdle for many Elders was overcoming the brutality of their experiences as children in residential and day “schools” that were little more than prisons.

Jack says she also knows of cases in which day and residential “school” survivors were agreeing to small settlements because they didn’t fully understand the documents they were being asked to sign.

“People are signing papers and they don’t know what they’re doing. So I’m fighting for the people who don’t understand,” says Jack, whose father is a residential “school” survivor and who is herself an Indian Day “school” survivor. “We’re not going to be walking around in the dark any more.”

At a ceremony on Monday at Shq’apthut (A Gathering Place) at VIU to celebrate the launch of the program, Dr. Carol Stuart, the university’s provost and vice-president academic, spoke about the need for such a program and the university’s support for it.

“These Elders have struggled with the legacy of residential and day ‘school,’ which not only created the trauma they experienced but also failed on every level to educate them. Failed to help them to be educated into their [own] culture, failed to help them to even be educated into the culture of the colonists that organized those residential ‘schools.’ They were denied the basic skills of reading and writing and math and so on,” she said, adding that “Elders have a very important role to help teach young people, to show strength and purpose and to share the traditions.”

The first step for Jack and Savory was to start pulling people together from the community to help, and the First Elders Training, Healing, Education, and Respect Society (FETHERS) was formed. The group met online all summer, and then approached VIU to request their participation in setting up the program, which they called The Literacy Circle. From there, things moved quickly.

Elder Linda Jack raises her hand at the podium in a ceremony for The Literacy Circle
“We’re not going to be walking around in the dark anymore,” said Elder Linda Jack at a ceremony on Oct. 18 to celebrate the launch of a new Indigenous Elders’ literacy circle. Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

Students were contacted and Aimee Chalifoux, Indigenous literacy coordinator for Literacy Central Vancouver Island helped them through the process of signing up and meeting the various requirements. Chalifoux has also stepped in with ongoing additional support such as working to assist one Elder to get her license, and another to learn how to use a mobile phone.

Retired stage manager and performer Mary Desprez was then brought in to use her skills at seeking resources from the community. The outpouring of enthusiasm from local businesses scrambling to support was truly remarkable, and something she had never seen before in her entire career, she says.

London Drugs offered to provide all the school supplies and Country Grocer donated all the lunches. When faced with the dilemma of how to get the food to campus, AC Taxi stepped in and offered to deliver it, and HandyDART said they would pick up and drop off all the Elders, for every class. 

“This is truly a miraculous circle led by an Indigenous Elder, with settlers using their power, privilege and connections to attempt to address a horrific wrong,” says Laurie Harding, via email. She is a settler of Scottish and English ancestry who joined FETHERS early on and runs Insight Indigenous Anti-Racism Coaching Services. “Settlers are needed to collaborate in Indigenous-driven healing opportunities, to see ourselves in this healing relationship with responsibility and accountability.”

There are 12 Elders in the program, which runs every Monday and Wednesday until Dec. 3, after which it will be re-assessed with the hope of renewal.

For more information about FETHERS, or to contribute to its expansion, contact Mary Desprez at marydesprez@shaw.ca