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United for Literacy: Our First Steps to ReconciliACTION

Jan. 08 2024

In 2004, I was a new manager at Frontier College, now United for Literacy. At that time, I took part in the Governor General Canadian Leadership Conference. This was such a privilege. I travelled through the Yukon territory for three weeks. My journey started in Whitehorse and went all the way up to Old Crow. It included a memorable stop in Teslin and visits to other First Nations of the territory. During this trip, I started to learn about the cultures, histories, and ambitions of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples*. I decided to keep learning. I made it a priority to listen closely when people share their knowledge with me and my colleagues. 

Something I have learned over the years is that telling the truth is necessary to build and maintain trust with all people. Indigenous peoples have a long history of oppression and dispossession. So, honesty is a priority when building relationships with Indigenous communities. We must break down the myth that information and facts only flow in one direction: outward from the dominant culture. As United for Literacy prepares to celebrate its 125th anniversary, we need to consider our past while planning the future. One step toward a more inclusive and equitable future is acknowledging the organization’s history.

In the spirit of sharing knowledge, I am joined by United for Literacy board member Kristen Miller for this article. Kristen is an Indigenous High School Graduation Coach for Edmonton Public Schools. Among other things, we will look at Truth and Reconciliation and the importance of listening when people talk about their lives and experiences.

Throughout history, our society has privileged the Western knowledge systems and perspective. This reflects the colonial mindset that we are working to dispel. Systemic change is necessary. At United for Literacy, we acknowledge that we played a role in promoting non-Indigenous education. This contributed to the colonization of Indigenous peoples and communities.

“To take the first step towards reconciliation, we first must learn the truth. We must have the courage to listen to untold stories, have conversations, and ask for clarification,” Miller says. “The truth can be difficult to hear. This is especially true as it pertains to the hidden history of the Indigenous People of Canada. Many emotions are likely to surface, and it may take time to absorb and digest the stories shared.”

Telling the truth also means acknowledging and celebrating the knowledge of these groups. We must amplify the rich contributions of the Indigenous peoples on whose land we live. 

ReconciliACTION: Centring Justice for Indigenous People

Have you heard of ReconciliACTION? It is a set of important actions for non-Indigenous people and organizations. These actions help to decolonize frameworks and centre justice for Indigenous people. The six actions of ReconciliACTION are:  

1. Learn the history between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples 
2. Understand the history and legacy of residential schools 
3. Explore the unique intersections between treaty, constitutional, Indigenous, and human rights we have in Canada 
4. Recognize the rich contributions that Indigenous peoples have made to Canada 
5. Take action to address historical injustices and present-day wrongs 
6. Teach others  

These actions resonate with me as CEO of a non-Indigenous organization. They are steps that we can take to become strong allies. I especially relate to Action 4, which is central to our work with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. We have learned so much from and with our Indigenous partners. It is important that we recognize their generosity when it comes to knowledge sharing.  At all levels of the organization, United for Literacy benefits from all we learn from Indigenous communities.

"When I reflect on Truth and Reconciliation," Kristen adds, "I think of the Elders I've met who live in the Alberta Treaties Territories of 6, 7, and 8. I also think of my mother and her siblings, who went through the Indian Residential School System. I consider the ways this affected their lives.

"Many Elders who went through the Residential School System engaged in high-risk activities and substance abuse as ways to suppress the pain they endured as children and youth. Being taken from their family, not allowed to speak their language, and losing their rich culture made deep impacts. Eventually, they returned to their communities to heal through ceremony and reclaim their spirit.

"The Elders’ teachings come from a place of love and healing. One of their teachings has supported me on my journey. They relayed that the longest journey in one’s lifetime is going from your head to your heart. We use our minds always. However, it is also good to use your heart, especially when experiences or knowledge that challenge you occur. Feel with your heart…see with your heart…listen with your heart, and it will grow."

Summer Literacy Camps and Collaboration with Indigenous Communities 

United for Literacy collaborates with over 100 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities. Here's an example of knowledge-sharing:

In 2005, the Honourable James Bartleman of the Chippewas of Mnjikaning First Nation changed our organization. Mr. Bartleman was the first Indigenous Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. In this role, he decided to spread his love of learning to Indigenous children. Inspired by his own life, he wanted to encourage the exchange of knowledge from North to South, South to North. He worked with United for Literacy to create Summer Literacy Camps and fulfill his vision. Find out more about this year’s Summer Literacy Camps and Mr. Bartleman’s ongoing legacy in the 2023 Camp Report.


Summer Literacy Camps support kids as well as entire communities. The camps create opportunities for collective learning and community-wide benefits:

  • Local youth and adults hired as camp counsellors gain valuable, paid work experience.
  • Families, community members, and Elders take part in camp activities. They share their knowledge and increase their involvement in children’s education.
  • Culturally relevant books are sent to each community.
  • Programming is developed in collaboration with the community and reflects the local culture and traditions.
  • Communities experience positive economic impact. Wages to local staff, honoraria to community members, and the purchase of books, materials, food, and services all make a difference.

The Summer Literacy Camps were successful and grew by word of mouth from 5 communities in 2005 to over 150 communities at their peak in 2019. Since the camps began, every Lieutenant Governor of Ontario has supported the program. This reflects the strength of James Bartleman’s vision and the value of these camps for young lives. 

During 15 years of Summer Literacy Camps, United for Literacy has developed strong relationships with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, organizations, and leaders. Summer Camps have also led communities to identify other local learning needs. This has led to year-round collaborations including:

  • Community Literacy Catalysts across the country.
  • a Math Tutor program in Nunavik 
  • a Literacy Kits program started during the pandemic to keep kids learning. 

These programs must respond to the needs of the local people. This only happens when we work together. We must listen and learn from the expertise of our partners and collaborators.    
I know that there is still much for our organization to learn . A vast range of knowledge has been shared with us over the past 125 years. We are literacy experts but not experts in Indigenous literacies. Our amazing partners have been willing to teach us and innovate with usfor that we are grateful. These collaborations have provided many opportunities to learn, including learning from mistakes we have made in the process of striving to do better through our work. 

So, what have we learned from our collaborations with First Nation, Métis, and Inuit partners as an organization? I can think of many things:  

  • We've learned new ways of innovating and adapting.  
  • We've learned ways of incorporating local knowledge, stories, and histories into our programs. 
  • We’ve learned about intergenerational learning and teaching. This includes knowledge shared through storytelling, ceremonies, and cultural practices.  
  • We’ve learned the importance of fostering strong relationships, connections, and a sense of belonging. These things are key to creating educational programs that respond to community needs. We learned this by prioritizing community voices and experiences. 
  • These exchanges have made us better listeners.  

ReconciliACTION Moving Forward

This is the beginning of our journey. We want to celebrate and encourage respectful discussion between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples. I encourage non-Indigenous peoples to take the steps of ReconciliACTION.  

As Kristen says, “We cannot change the past. But we can change the future. By learning about Indigenous cultures and people we will find our way to healing and connection. As you journey down the path of Truth and Reconciliation, I encourage everyone to do it with an open mind and heart.”

For United for Literacy, this means continuing to listen to and learn from our Indigenous partners. We will continue to co-create literacy programs that reflect Indigenous ways of knowing and being. We will invest in the training and professional development of staff so that they are prepared to work with Indigenous partners. Importantly, we will seek to hire more Indigenous staff, vendors, and contractors. We will also prioritise and keep Indigenous representation on our Board of Directors.    

By recognising and celebrating the two-way flow of knowledge, we can create a more inclusive, respectful, and fair society. We will work to make amends and deliver education access and equity to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people. We will meet them where they are while continuing to learn together. Will you join us? 

— By Mélanie Valcin, President et CEO of United for Literacy, with Kristen Miller, member of the Board of Directors

* Peoples refers to the wide variety of experiences, cultures and traditions reflected under the umbrella term First Nations, Métis, and Inuit.


Two women, Melanie and Kristen, in front of bushes
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