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Arts & Culture ᐊᔨᐦᑐᐧᐃᓐ

Cree youth experience unique summer literacy camps

BY Ben Powless Aug 30, 2022

Summer literacy camps were held in eight Cree communities this summer, enrolling around 240 youth for most of July in a program organized by the Cree School Board and Frontier College. 

CSB School Operations Director Kimberly Quinn said the board is aiming to promote education and literacy after an educational review in 2007-2008 showed literacy levels were in decline. “Research says that Grade 3 reading levels are strong predictors of student success in high school,” she noted.

Brenna McIntyre, Regional Camp Coordinator for Frontier College, said that after finishing school in June, students “lose a lot of what they learned by September.” She said the problem worsened during the pandemic, when schools closed for long periods.

“The camps aim to prevent that learning loss and have students start the new school year on the same page they left off. We try to make sure they’re having a fun time, socializing, getting outdoors, and helping with social and emotional skills,” McIntyre added. 

She said that literacy was a big part of the camps, including learning to read and write, but that they knew “kids don’t want to spend all day sitting at a desk, so it’s the counsellors’ job to make learning fun with interactive activities that get them moving around: scavenger hunts, finding clues, active games.” 

They also get visits from Elders, Cree storytellers, parents and community members, and sometimes take field trips.

Parents were pleased their children continued to learn during the summer, and by how interested they were to return to school. Teachers also note that these kids are more engaged at the start of the school year, according to McIntyre. 

This year, the camps added programming for secondary students in the afternoons and evenings, with opportunities to learn things like making a podcast, digital art skills, robotics, sports, guitar lessons, cooking and crafts. 

McIntyre said that they hire as many local staff as possible, getting higher levels of community engagement every time, and bring in counsellors from other communities when there aren’t enough local applicants.

Counsellors attend a two-and-a-half week training course in Val-d’Or where they learn how to run the camps. While McIntyre is based in P.E.I., she attends these sessions so staff can ask questions directly. 

The local teams are responsible for setting up the programming, often relying on community members who have a passion for education and who may want to pursue education or youth work in the future. 

During the pandemic, the program shifted to “literacy catalysts,” which entailed sending out resource kits consisting of books, challenges and contests to students, since meeting in person was largely prohibited. This year, the camps were offered in the morning while literacy catalysts were available for afternoons.

While they initially planned to hold camps in all nine communities this year, a lack of applicants meant there was no camp in Nemaska. Covid concerns in early July forced teams to place a cap on applicants, so only half of the usual 500 students were able to attend.

Since Frontier College began offering the camps in five fly-in communities in Ontario in 2005, the program has expanded to over 100 Indigenous communities across the country. In 2020, more than 5,300 students aged 5-12 participated in the program nationally.

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.