Nanaimo-based Indigenous Elders’ literacy circle takes flight across the country

Cowichan Tribes Elder Linda Jack’s dream of starting a literacy program for Indigenous Elders that would spread across the country is now coming true.

Cowichan Tribes Elder Linda Jack’s dream of starting a literacy program for Indigenous Elders that would spread across the country is now coming true.

Born out of Jack’s determination to learn how to read and write, and to help other elders who were also denied basic educational opportunities in their youth, the Nanaimo-based FEATHERS (First Elders Accessible Training Healing Education Respect Support) Society hosted its first group of Elders in its literacy circle program at Vancouver Island University last year.

As most of the participants are survivors of the residential and day “school” systems, The Literacy Circle emphasizes its role in providing a supportive, safe, student-driven and self-paced environment.

Now, the program is set to expand into 11 communities across Canada over the next two years, with support from a sponsorship by Oak View Group, a management company that oversees operations at venues on behalf of municipalities. This includes the Vancouver Island Conference Centre (VICC), which donated space for FEATHERS to run their classes.

The planned roll-out starts in the fall with Oak View Group-managed venues in Penticton and Dawson Creek, B.C. They aim to expand FEATHERS to serve Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and a series of communities in Ontario by the end of 2024.

Elder Yvonne Frenchie smiles at the celebration of the expansion of FEATHERS literacy circle.
“It’s never too late to go back to school,” says Elder Yvonne Frenchie, who reclaimed her education at 86 years old. Photo by Julie Chadwick/ The Discourse

Though learner Yvonne Frenchie is 86 years old, that hasn’t stopped her from achieving a Grade 2 level of literacy within seven months of joining The Literacy Circle. 

Born to a family of migrant workers, Frenchie grew up both in Snuneymuxw territory and in the U.S. Not being able to read often made everyday tasks a struggle, she says at a celebration on April 20 held at the VICC.

“All those years of not knowing how to find a place to live. I’d walk and walk and all I could see was a red sign — I knew that was a ‘for rent’ sign. It was really hard for me to fill out papers, and raise four kids,” she says. Then she smiles. “And I’m kind of proud of that. I made it. So this is kind of a bonus for me, to learn how to read and write at my old age. And to meet these beautiful people.”

Elder Joanne Bob, a learner who was also present on April 20, says in a FEATHERS video she’s happy to finally be coming to school “and having fun.” Living in Nanaimo, she’s had a hard time with taxis and says she wonders if she’s getting the right change back. “I want to show them that they’re ripping me off,” she says with a laugh.

Elder Joanne Bob celebrates the expansion of FEATHERS to serve more Elders across the country.
Elder Joanne Bob shows off her knitting at a FEATHERS literacy circle held on April 20, 2022. Photo by Julie Chadwick/The Discourse

About a month after FEATHERS relaunched at the VICC in January, general manager Chuck Loewen says he brought up The Literacy Circle during his weekly regional manager’s meeting.

“I talked about the program, talked about their origin, what it does,” says Loewen. “And my boss [Dean Clarke] just stopped me and said, ‘Chuck — we’re taking this across the country. We’re doing this in every building that we manage in Canada.’”

“This is one of the [Truth and Reconcilliation Commission’s] calls to action. This is a demonstrable piece of action towards reconciliation. This is something we can do, and not just talk about,” says Loewen, who hopes this will set an example for building managers in other communities.

The spring program at The Literacy Circle started in April, and enrolment is free and ongoing. Donated lunches and school supplies are provided. 


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