Literacy week highlights importance of health knowledge

Literacy week highlights importance of health knowledge
Volunteers with the NWT Literacy Council lead a session teaching community members in Yellowknife about the importance of health literacy.Photo: Courtesy of NWT Literacy Council.

Increasing the state of health literacy within the territory can have a great impact on a person’s quality of life and can help to eliminate patterns of socio-economic struggle, according to the organization behind NWT’s annual Literacy Week.

The NWT Literacy Council event has communities from Inuvik to Enterprise acknowledging the week with special activities scheduled from Sept. 21 to 27, encouraging residents to learn about using literacy as it impacts access to information required for people to make informed decisions about their health.

“We’re all aware of the cycle of poverty and the effects of residential schools on families in the NWT and we do have petty crime rates and spousal abuse,” said Michael Corbett, executive director of the NWT Literacy Council. “Literacy is one of the factors that can break some of the cyclical things that are going on.”

According to the council, there are many linkages between healthy people and literacy:

“Reading to your babies, exciting brain cells, it goes on, so that when kids go into school and they hit that next phase they do have the beginnings of literacy,” Corbett said.

Kids and adults alike need to be in good health to be able to learn and retain information, which comes down to having families learn about healthy habits together.

Once youth are well on their way to getting a good education and maintaining a balanced lifestyle, they are more likely to succeed professionally and attain gainful employment, eliminating some of the socio-economic problems that plague residents of the North.

Finally, Corbett said, developing an individual’s literacy is integral so anyone who needs health care is able to access, understand and use it properly. As individuals increase their education and literacy rates, health care becomes all the more effective.

“One of our themes is that literacy changes lives and we’re really trying to make that knowledge known,” Corbett said. “We’re seeing a lot of people, especially young mothers and young parents who are looking at that, especially with a lot of the economic development opportunities that are happening throughout the North now in terms of natural resources.”

Problems with messaging

According to Corbett, one of the challenges the council faces with health promotion and general literacy in the NWT is creating effective learning resources in the territory’s 11 distinct official languages.

NWT Languages Commissioner Snookie Catholique said that while the campaign might have a positive impact on younger generations, the scope of the messaging needs to be widened in order to help all people in the North. The situation is especially urgent for elders who need increasing access to care as they age and primarily communicate orally in their traditional languages.

“In terms of written literacy with the Dene languages, not very many people understand or can read them,” Catholique said. One solution she proposed is to upload video and audio files online that recite information in the various languages. She plans to implement this strategy for the language commission’s website in the near future.

Even better than that, Catholique said, would be the introduction of qualified interpreters to communities, to provide the physical presence of a person who works with clients in their own languages.

“There needs to be some sort of service so that somebody can go in and explain to the elders how diabetes is created, this will happen to you when you feed your grandchildren this,” Catholique said. “We’re thinking in Western thoughts where we think that everybody can read and write in the Dene language.”

For tips on increasing your own health literacy, head to

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