Literacy champ pulls no punches

Premier Dennis Fentie was walking into a setup last Wednesday, as he introduced this year’s recipient of the Council of the Federation Literacy Award. And he knew it.

Premier Dennis Fentie was walking into a setup last Wednesday, as he introduced this year’s recipient of the Council of the Federation Literacy Award. And he knew it.

“I know she has a message for me,” Fentie told a small crowd gathered for the occasion inside the foyer of the legislature, “and I fully expect we listen.”

Eleanor Millard received the award for designing the territory’s first adult literacy programs, among many other accomplishments.

But she spends her days working as a researcher for the New Democrats. When MLA Steve Cardiff grills the premier during question period, his words are frequently written by Millard.

“He knows I’m the one who writes all the nasty questions,” she would later say with a chuckle.

True to form, the Carcross resident posed a tricky question in her speech: why is illiteracy prevalent in the Yukon, especially among First Nation people, when we have compulsory, free schooling?

Her answer was offered in the politest terms. Rather than directly attacking government policy, she sketched out a solution.

Poverty and illiteracy feed on one another: to do away with one, you need to do away with both, she explained. “It’s a cycle.”

If you’re serious about fighting illiteracy, then spend more on the poor. Fentie would later proclaim he’s doing exactly that. As examples, he pointed to new affordable housing being built in Whitehorse and the relatively vibrant Yukon economy.

“Yeah, right,” was the sarcastic response this would elicit from Millard during an interview later, in which she pulled no punches.

“Yukon Learn has had the same budget for years. They’re trying desperately to expand. There’s no way they can get to the communities.”

Education Minister Patrick Rouble and Fentie point to Yukon’s early age literacy programs. “But that’s not what I’m talking about at all,” said Millard.

She’s more concerned about illiterate adults.

However, the school system has big problems, too.

Education reform, which is supposed to strike a new relationship between the territory and First Nation students, is little more than “gobbledygook.”

Incompetence in the territorial bureaucracy is “staggering.” Officials continue to behave in a “colonial fashion,” more interested in preserving their own power than working with First Nations.

If territorial leaders bothered to calculate the cost of illiteracy, they would see fixing the problem as a worthwhile investment in Yukon’s human capital. “All these things cost taxpayers in the long run,” she said.

“But politicians don’t think beyond the next election. They don’t care. They just want to maintain things that look good. That’s it – they’re not thinking in terms of these people’s children or grandchildren.”

So they offer “lip service.” A small pilot program may offer special outdoor classes to students in Old Crow, but, by and large, these programs remain the purview of the academically-inclined – “the lawyers’ and teachers’ sons. So the winners win more.”

Millard offers these views as a longtime Yukoner, a former social worker, past MLA and, briefly, education minister.

She first moved to the territory in 1965, when, fresh out of university, she took a job as a barmaid in Dawson City. She soon became the social worker for northern Yukon, and found herself landing on the frozen riverbanks of Old Crow in a DC-3 – the same type of aircraft that now serves as a weathervane at the Whitehorse airport.

“That weathervane is what we flew in. It was amazing, how it could take off on the shortest space.”

The social work stint provided Millard with her first glimpse into the complicated realities of Yukon’s First Nations, which then, as now, find themselves caught between two worlds, often without a firm foothold in either.

She gained even more intimate knowledge of such struggles after she adopted a young girl in Old Crow. She’s now 40, with five children, living in Edmonton. “I consider it my life’s accomplishment that we’re still talking,” said Millard.

Her cynicism about politicians is well-earned. She served one term as MLA for the northern Yukon, starting in 1974, and soon saw firsthand how other members put porkbarrelling ahead of principles.

She particularly clashed with Dan Lang, now Yukon’s Conservative senator, who would frequently admonish Yukon’s First Nations to “pull up their socks” and lift themselves from poverty, rather than demand government handouts. Millard knew the reality was more complicated.

Her political career came to an abrupt end shortly after she was foisted into the role of education minister – a job that nobody else wanted, after Lang quit the post over a “snit” with the commissioner, said Millard.

She bravely, but probably unwisely, decided to try to explain to Yukon’s principals why the North American Native Brotherhood, the precursor to today’s Assembly of First Nations, considered the education system cultural “genocide.”

The crowd took that inflammatory word to be her own, and newspaper editors were soon howling for her resignation.

That, and a concerted smear campaign by Conservatives, some of whom went door-to-door spreading word Millard was a lesbian (“My friends were really upset. I thought it was hilarious.”) ensured she would place a distant third place in the next election.

No bother. By then, Millard had lined up another job to work with a young Phil Fontaine, who was Yukon’s regional director for the Canadian government, at the time.

She later took her Masters in adult education and put it to practice in Ross River, where she tried to teach First Nation adults how to read. It was a thankless task.

Some students came drunk. Some were obnoxious. “It was easy to blame them,” said Millard.

She came to realize that these acts of petty defiance, however self-defeating, were how the truly marginalized behaved.

“It’s a political stance. They don’t want to be literate. It’s just anger,” she said.

“It really changed my mind. You couldn’t blame it on culture, because they were more acculturated than that. It was resistance because of survival: survival of their identity as people.”

The solution? “You educate the learners about it: they need to know that’s what the system is doing to them. And then they can conquer it.”

Role models help. Millard marvels over the accomplishments of First Nations success stories like Dave Joe, who became Yukon’s first aboriginal lawyer. “It was like he had two feet, one in each culture. He really was part of both places.”

Self-governance is another step in the right direction, said Millard. She just wishes the territory would do less foot-dragging.

Ottawa sends the territory money for every First Nation student enrolled in school. First Nation governments have long wanted control over this funding, but the territory resists.

“I think there should be the choice of a First Nation school,” said Millard. She points to Fort Ware, a fly-in community between Prince George and Watson Lake, which has a First Nation-run school she says is “great.”

“It has to be them who make the decisions.”

Millard, as usual, has many projects on the go. She’s already written two books – one is a memoir, the other a fictional account of a young woman of mixed European and First Nation heritage struggling to find her way in the modern world.

She’s now working on a third: a novel about a girl with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

“There’s always something more.”

Contact John Thompson at