MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why Nanook of the North still can’t read

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1967
MACLEAN’S REPORTS

Why Nanook of the North still can’t read

BLAIR FRASER October 1 1967

Why Nanook of the North still can’t read

Laing was furious when he found Dick and Jane had not yet left the Arctic

Backstage in the Arctic

MAJOR CHANGES are being introduced this autumn in the schooling of Eskimos and Indians in the far north — three years after they were first ordered by Minister Arthur Laing, and two years after he’d been told they had taken place. Now for the first time, some Eskimo children may learn to read from books that are designed for them, with pictures of objects familiar in the north and a super-simple vocabulary for pupils who speak little or no English.

Laing’s attention was first drawn to the deficiencies of Arctic schools in August 1964. when he took a party of diplomats, businessmen and journalists on an eight-day tour of the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. 1 hey were struck by the grotesque anomalies in the textbooks prescribed for Eskimos and northern Indians. Children in villages that had no roads were being instructed in the observance of traffic lights. Children who had never seen a horse, cow or pig were reading about Dick’s and Jane’s visit to Grandfather’s farm. Worst of all, children who knew no English were being taught, by teachers who knew no Eskimo, with the same texts and techniques as in the schools of southern Alberta. The result was that hulking teenagers, still in grade three, wrestled half - heartedly with subject matter designed for eight-year-olds. The drop-out rate, though unrecorded, was admitted to be fantastically high, and the general social effect was disastrous.

Back in Ottawa, Laing ordered some changes made. Special textbooks were to be prepared, special teaching methods devised, special courses given to teachers who were going north. About a year later he was given to understand these things had been done — he recalls, rather vaguely, being shown some of the new textbooks for Eskimo use.

In August of this year Laing conducted another similar tour, with a party that included several of the same people. They were startled, and Laing was furious, lo find no changes yet visible in the Arctic schools they saw. Bookshelves still had stacks of Fun with Dick and Jane. New teachers were still arriving without the faintest notion of the problems they would face, or how to cope with them. Local officials kept no track of the boys and girls who dropped w out of school, and could give no pre| cise information on what became ot 1 them, though one experienced teacher ^ said: “My impression is that they go I back to become unemployed trouble£ makers in the villages.”

Laing returned to Ottawa in a state of considerable wrath, but this time inquiries got more encouraging answers. The new textbooks were not • yet in use, but were about to be. So were some practical texts for older students, teaching things like cooking to the girls and (with specially hired Eskimo instructors) survival techniques to the boys. Some are printed in both Eskimo syllables and English.

This summer 25 teachers hired for Arctic service came to Ottawa on full salary, to take a course at Carleton University in methods of teaching non-English-speaking children. Preschool classes have been started in several northern centres, as a pilot project, to teach the children English before they tackle grade one reading. No Eskimo teachers have yet been trained, but 35 bilingual Eskimo assistants were hired last year to help beginners over the language barrier, and more will be employed as they be■ome available. Vocational training has been expanding steadily — 829 students are taking vocational courses, plus 82 apprentices in various trades. Plans are afoot to allow Eskimos and

northern Indians to qualify for trade certification by oral instead of written exams ( many can't write, and more are too timid to try a written exam) whereby it’s hoped that many more will qualify as skilled workers.

Perhaps most important of all, an intensive study has begun on northern manpower—detailed inquiry into the education, language capability, family situation, income and employment record of each Eskimo and Indian in the north. A pilot study in the Great Slave Lake and Coppermine areas was carried out last summer. Machinery for a complete survey will be set up in 1968, and its hoped the study can be finished in 1969. This will provide factual answers to the root question: “What has been the effect, on the native peoples, of educational programs to date?”

Apparently the reason for this burst of belated activity was a change of

management in the education division, Northern Administration. (Not to be confused with the education directorate, Indian Affair«, until recently an entirely different department, and one where change has been in rapid progress for several years.) The former head of northern education left for another job 18 months ago and was succeeded by D. W. Simpson, one of his own subordinates, and a man who knew the establishment from the inside. Simpson broke up what one civil servant called “our little cabal” of elderly bureaucrats who. ex-colleagues now admit, had been quietly and resolutely nipping changes in the bud.

I..aing is appeased by these developments, but by no means satisfied. “We're not moving fast enough,” he says. “Discovery of material resources is going ahead at a tremendous pace, and development of human resources is not keeping up. Unless we can hurry it up somehow these new industrial projects will bring all their work force in from outside, and the people who live in the north will be as badly off as ever.”

BLAIR FRASER