It is an absolute honour to have been chosen as the 2011 recipient of the Council of the Federation Literacy Award for Ontario. I am so grateful to the people who submitted the nomination, and to the people who started the process. I am accepting this award on behalf of the people who have shared their dreams, hopes and aspirations with me over the years – learners and practitioners.
First of all, I want to explain why I go by my Spirit Name. Ningwakwe means ‘Rainbow Woman.’ It was given to me in ceremony quite a few years ago by an Anishnawbe Elder. She would not explain what my name meant. She told me it was for me to find the meaning, then to live into that meaning. I discovered that a rainbow has no light of its own; rather, it reflects, refracts and disperses the light from the sun. I have come to understand that Creator puts people in my path who give me the opportunity to reflect, refract and disperse the light that they give me through their dreams, hopes and aspirations. The Creator also puts me in places where the people who shared with me are not able to go, so I carry their words forward.
In 1985, I had students at an off-site George Brown College program show me, by their bravery in coming to class through challenging circumstances, that we needed a curriculum and approaches that were different from mainstream. (In fact, I think of literacy students as ‘invisible heroes’ for being able to keep going in spite of their everyday challenges.) I had a Board Director who noticed how I was burning the midnight oil to make learning fun and relevant for the students. She recommended that I be the first ever coordinator of the literacy program at the Native Women’s Resource Centre – this was 1987. Within two months, a group of us got together and birthed the Ontario Native Literacy Coalition.
From there, I had a government official encourage me to apply for the job of Provincial Native Literacy Coordinator at the Ministry of Education. When I was the successful applicant amongst people I thought were better qualified, this person became an inspiring Senior Manager for me who trusted what I recommended and supported me in getting those recommendations carried out.
The individual program coordinators called me at the Ministry to tell me what was going on in their communities, especially sharing that Native literacy was about more than reading and writing. Learners often came to programs with a whole host of issues that stood in the way of their being able to learn.
At that time, I just happened to be reading a book entitled, “The Power Within.” I contacted the authors and told them what coordinators were sharing with me. In one morning, we conceptualized the Native Literacy Communications Course through the First Nations Technical Institute in 1990.
I soon discovered, through everybody’s willingness to share, that all I had to do was listen and cross-pollinate by passing everybody’s ideas around. Coordinators were burning the midnight oil and inventing ways to make learning fun. I gathered a group together and we traveled around Ontario to visit Native resource centres to see how they produced materials. Before the end of the tour, the group decided that we could do this ourselves. We did not have to get another group to do this for us. Thus was born the Ningwakwe Learning Press.
About that same time, I found myself at a meeting with Aboriginal literacy practitioners from across Canada who were developing a multi-media Aboriginal literacy kit through Parkland Regional College. To my surprise, they asked that I do the written portion of that kit. The even bigger surprise was that, in their previous meetings which I had not attended, they agreed that Aboriginal peoples have their own literacies. In fact, they chose the rainbow to symbolize the different types of literacies. They asked me to develop the ‘Rainbow Approach to Aboriginal Literacy.’ To date, I’ve been invited to do approximately sixty (60) presentations on the Rainbow Approach all across Canada, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Cuba.
A few years later, I was approached by a group who were doing research on Native literacy programs across Canada. Some people recommended that I could help with that research. We found that practitioners felt their own host organization did not understand fully what was involved in running a literacy program, that it was much more than reading and writing. We acted on their expressed wishes to get together and discuss their dreams, hopes and aspirations with like-minded people. We pulled together the first ever in Canada national Aboriginal literacy gather in Morley, Alberta, April 2000. In the closing plenary, participants said they wanted their own national Aboriginal literacy organization because mainstream programs did not understand what we meant by the holistic approach that is most effective in working with Aboriginal peoples. This idea became the National Indigenous Literacy Association.
In 2005, I got a phone call seemingly ‘out of the blue’ from a group who were coming to Canada from New Zealand to develop literacy curriculum based on the UNESCO award-winning Cuban methodology AND they were bringing their own developmental dollars. It has been my absolute privilege to be working with ArrowMight Canada on developing the curriculum I wished I had when I was coordinating a literacy program. I get to travel across Canada meeting with students who are doing ArrowMight and I hear from them firsthand the changes they have been able to make in their lives.
These are a few examples of opportunities the Creator has brought my way. Suffice it to say that I am truly grateful that I have found what I love to do, that I receive daily inspirations from the people I meet and that I get regular confirmations through amazing synchronicities to keep doing what I’m doing. Through these, I have come to understand Aboriginal literacy is about ‘reading the universe.’ My life is about reflecting, refracting and dispersing that energy so that others can enjoy it.