British Columbia

Literacy program launched for Indigenous elders, residential school and day school survivors

A new literacy program at Vancouver Island University has been set up to help residential school survivors learn the academic skills they didn't get from those institutions.

Some never learned to read and write despite years at the government-funded institutions

Indigenous Elder Linda Jack is a survivor of a day school. She is on a quest to reclaim her education and learn how to read and spell. (Vancouver Island University )

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

An Indigenous elder is championing a new program at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo to make up for the substandard education she and others received at residential schools. 

Linda Jack, a member of Cowichan Tribes who attended a day school for Indigenous children and who is the daughter of a residential school survivor, said she is tired of not being able to read or write.

"I'm living in the dark. That's the only way we can explain. We're in the dark right now and we're trying to come out of it," Jack said. 

Canada's residential school system, funded by the federal government and largely administered by Christian churches, operated from the 1870s until the last school closed in 1997. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified more than 4,100 children who died while attending a residential school out of the more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children that were forced to attend.

Many of the children forced to attend residential schools did not receive an adequate education and were traumatized by their harsh treatment there.

Though Jack attended high school, she says that was not a reflection of her actual abilities. 

"I went to high school and I didn't even know what to do," she said. 

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

Knowing she was not alone — and wanting to reclaim her education — Jack gathered other elders. The First Elders Training, Healing, Education, and Respect Society (FETHERS) was formed.

"It's individual for each person. I have Grade 3, maybe I'm just guessing. And some have a little higher," said Jack. 

The tuition-free, seven-week course, will be tailored to what each individual student wants to learn and will be taught by an Indigenous instructor with previous experience at Vancouver Island University. Classes are capped at 16 students and tutors will be on hand. 

She says the oldest elder in the program is 70. Another student is determined to participate despite a cancer diagnosis. 

"They're all excited. They're willing to go. We're all getting ready. And it means the whole world to us that, because they're getting sick and tired of being where they're at, too," Jack said. 

Jack's goal is to get a Grade 12 education. She wants to be able to get her driver's license, read to her grandchildren and try out new recipes. 

She also wants to emphasize to other Indigenous elders who may not be able to read or write that they are not alone.

"There's a lot of hope for them out there."

Applications will be accepted until Oct. 15 and classes begin on Oct. 18, running for two hours on Monday and Wednesday afternoons until Dec. 3. To register, call 250-740-6425 or email

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Within B.C., the KUU-US Crisis Line Society provides a First Nations and Indigenous-specific crisis line available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's toll free and can be reached at 1-800-588-8717 or online at

With files from All Points West