• be unemployed or on Income Support.
  • have poor health, or even die earlier.

Such figures, however, reflect a one–dimensional, and often a deficit, view of literacy. They tend to undervalue and even marginalize other types of literacies, and simplify something that is very complex, such as the literacy situation facing Aboriginal peoples.

3.2 Aboriginal language literacy in the NWT

In Aboriginal languages, there is no equivalent word for 'literacy'. The Assembly of First Nations claims that literacy can refer to three things22:

  • Literacy in a particular language
  • Literacy as training in thought and knowledge in a particular field
  • Literacy as the way a particular society uses written symbols

It claims that Aboriginal literacy needs to take into account these three factors: language, knowledge and social practice.

Taking Back the Talk, the review on Aboriginal language and literacy prepared for the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, suggests that there is universal agreement that Aboriginal peoples need to develop their own definitions of literacy, but no agreement on whether a single definition could apply to all Aboriginal people23.

In the not–too–distant past, when Aboriginal people in the NWT lived on the land, they used their own languages. They communicated orally, often through stories. They also communicated visually, reading signs from their environment. Some Aboriginal languages used syllabics, which some elders learned and can still use today. Most languages had very little in the way of written material. Reading was not necessarily seen as a productive choice in an environment with oral and visual traditions, and in a hunting–gathering economy, where hard work was necessary for survival.


22 Assembly of first Nations. Breaking the Chains: First Nations Literacy and Self-Determination. Report of the Assembly of First Nations Language and Literacy Secretariat. March 1994.
23 Norton, Ruth and Mark Fettes. Taking Back the Talk: A Specialized Review on Aboriginal Languages and Literacy. Paper prepared as part of the research program of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples,. November 1994.