When the first residential schools opened in the NWT, children who attended them were forbidden to use their mother tongue and had to speak English instead. They also had to change their literacy practices. This meant when they returned home in the summer, they could no longer understand their parents, nor could their parents understand them. They also brought new literacy practices. This created a conflict and a discontinuity of language and literacy in their homes and communities. In some ways, this mismatch between home and school literacy, English and Aboriginal literacy, continues to the present day, and still impacts Aboriginal people.
In every culture, literacy models and practices vary from family to family and from group to group, giving rise to the concept of 'literacies'. Today, Aboriginal people in the NWT live in a complex world of multiple literacies. In this situation, Aboriginal literacy is probably better described as 'literacies' and depicted as a continuum. The purest form will occur where both the mother tongue and home language are an Aboriginal language, and the literacy practices use the Aboriginal language as the medium of communication. However, even in a home where English predominates, Aboriginal literacy practices will still exist. Even though people may not be able to speak their own language well, they are still likely to have been socialized at home at an early age into Aboriginal literacy through their cultural literacy models and practices.
To survive in today's world, yet retain their unique identity, Aboriginal people have to develop dual literacy skills—Aboriginal literacy skills that let them maintain their links with their ancestors, their environment and their spirituality, and English literacy skills that let them take part in institutional learning and the economy. People who have had to learn to live in bilingual, biliterate situations understand how complex this is, and know the challenges involved in it. The Dogrib people aptly describe this as becoming 'strong like two people'.
3.3 Multiple literacy practices
In the Literacy Council, we see ourselves mainly as facilitators, trying to help communities get the skills they need to do things for themselves. We have spent the past five years working with community people, helping them build their capacity to plan and deliver literacy programs, especially family literacy programs…but in doing that here in the NWT, we face a dilemma. We find ourselves reflecting on our practices, wondering if the interventions we are involved in are appropriate for the people we work with.
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