First Nation students thrive with the right resources and support in their schools


Aboriginal youth thrive with right tools

By Carol Goar - Dec 17, 2013

In the past year, Jennifer Martino has been to Attawapiskat three times.

She has been to Nelson House, a Cree Community 800 kilometres north of Winnipeg; Rankin Inlet in Nunavut; Whitewood in Saskatchewan and Nain in Labrador.

She has so much good news it comes spilling out. In some of the most isolated aboriginal communities in Canada, people are finding local solutions to intractable problems. On some of the poorest reserves in the North, kids are thriving.

"If Canadians could see what is going on, it would change their perspective," she says.

Martino, 30, is the executive director of One Laptop per Child Canada, a charity that provides laptops to aboriginal children. Since its founding in 2010 it has distributed 3,800 of the tough little computers. Her job is to deliver them to the classrooms, show the teachers to use them and watch what happens. "When we give aboriginal youth the tools, they're as eager to learn as students anywhere."

The computers, worth $235 apiece, come fully loaded with HD video, YouTube streaming, 60 literacy programs, a physical fitness app, a nutrition app, a financial skills app, math games, activities that help kids cope with bullying, alcohol, solvents, family violence, drugs and depression and 25 books written by First Nation, M├ętis, and Inuit authors in aboriginal languages. The scope for creativity is almost limitless.

The sponsors of the program are the Belinda Stronach Foundation; Vale, the global mining giant; the Bank of Montreal and the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs.

So far, 13 aboriginal schools have received computers and the training. Next year, five more will be added. Sixty are on the waiting list.

Martino, who has seen the living conditions in these First Nations; seen the efforts teachers and community leaders are making to give the children a better future; and seen the enthusiasm with which kids respond, doesn't claim laptops will turn things around. "They're small, but they make a difference."

She spent 35 weeks on the road in 2013. Here are a few of her favourite stories:

Attawapiskat: The problem-plagued Cree community on the coast of James Bay is probably the most notorious reserve in Canada. It has had a chronic housing shortage for as long as anyone can remember. The unemployment rate is 70 per cent. The water is often undrinkable. Its elementary school was condemned four years ago. Students attend classes in a series of attached portables.

To outsiders, Attawapiskat is the picture of hopelessness. To Martino, it is a community with an incredible commitment to literacy. The wall of the principal's office charts the progress of every child. It is updated regularly to ensure no student falls behind. "Whatever you're doing in Grade 2 and 3, the results are phenomenal," Martino told literacy co-ordinator Rhonda Potts, as students created spelling flash cards on their new computers. The dedicated teacher was touched. No one had ever told her that.

Nelson House: Between Martino's first and second visits to the remote northern Manitoba community, a remarkable change took place. Using the math gaming platform on their laptops, the Grade 3 students at O.K. (Otetiskiwin Kiskinwamahtowekamik) School became excited - and fiercely competitive - about solving mathematical problems. The school now ranks second in Canada - 49th in the world - in standardized math tests. "My students run around the classroom looking at each other's screens," teacher Nathan Long told Martino.

Rankin Inlet: Students at Simon Alaittuq School took to computer animation with an aptitude no one expected. The Inuit community, 200 km from the Arctic Circle, is far beyond the reach of broadband. Despite their lack of familiarity with the technology, two Grade 5 students created an action cartoon, using stick figures, before Martino's eyes. It took them half an hour.

Few Canadians get a chance to see beyond the stereotypes that define fly-in aboriginal communities: crowded housing, dilapidated infrastructure, substance abuse, poverty and squalor.

Martino no longer notices any of that. As she watches aboriginal youth embrace 21st-century technology, she sees the face of hope.