Literacy is a key component in the development of a child. Without it, kids feel left out, unable to communicate in an age in which newspapers and online blogs rule. Mistissini’s 2006 Basketball Camp was set up to attack the large problem of illiteracy at the grassroots level in Eeyou Istchee.

“It started with an idea about two years ago,” said Gordon Hudson, Mistissini’s Director of Youth Healing Services. “I saw the popularity of basketball and I made a phone call to then-General Manager Rob Babcock. We started the process. We had a group of youth go down to Toronto to attend a couple games last year and we had a tour of the Air Canada Centre.”

Then on September 8 and 9, a Raptors group that included players Fred Jones and PJ Tucker headed to Mistissini to see for themselves what these kids were about – in their own element.

“I’m elated with the response that took place,” said Hudson. “Any activity we do is always about the underlying theme. For the football camp it’s about self-esteem. About asking for help and accomplishing your goals,” he said. “With the basketball camp, it’s literacy. With the low graduation rate and the amount of youth that are 16, 17 who can’t read; that was an important underlying factor, basketball was secondary.

“It’s through the sports that we get these kids. Once we get them, then we have their attention and we can develop what we’re trying to do.”

The first day was chopped into two main reading sessions. The first group was the elementary school children. Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, James Bartleman, who is Aboriginal, read to the kids along with the two Raptors’ players.

Then the high school kids came in and the message was a little more hard-hitting.

Bartleman talked about the opportunities life presents and how it is up to each student to take hold of them and make the best of what they are given. Chief John Longchap thanked the Raptors for visiting his community and praised Bartleman for his numerous endeavours in bettering the lives of young Aboriginals.

Bartleman’s message to the kids demonstrated that his upbringing had its share of difficulty too. He talked about living in a trailer in a small Ontario town and not being accepted by the white society or the Aboriginal society.

“I was very fortunate that despite coming from a family where my mother and father only had a Grade 3 or 4 education, they were both avid readers. They didn’t allow poverty to stop them from reading or visiting the library. I followed their example and learned to read early in life. That gave me a leg up in terms of doing well in school and going on to university,” said Bartleman, who runs 35 literacy camps in Ontario and is hoping to start one in Eeyou Istchee next summer.

“I’m also starting a young reader’s program where disadvantaged Native kids, starting with 3,000 of them, will get brand new books every other month for the next 5 years.”

Last summer, 1,750 kids took part in Bartleman’s literacy camps. In all, he has helped to provide 850,000 books to First Nation communities and friendship centres.

“Stay in school, take advantage of the world that literacy provides to you, get an education,” he reiterated. “The opportunities are there for you as they have never been because we live in an aging population that needs workers of all sorts. Young Aboriginal have opportunities in front of them and in the final analysis, it’s up to them to make that decision.”

The Raptors’ players, who themselves hail from underprivileged areas, were overwhelmed by the love and support shown to them by the community.

“It’s an experience, something that I haven’t seen before,” said Fred Jones, a guard who signed as a free agent with Toronto this year. “There are poverty-stricken areas all over, like from where I’m from and with different ethnic groups. It’s good to be here and to see the kids in this situation and still seem like they have some life in them and that they want people to focus on them and give them encouragement so they can push on and work out.”

Jones said he probably took just as much from the camp as the kids did.

“I’ve learned that if you see new things, it makes you grow as a person. I was more than happy to try out something new and that helped me as a person.”

“Hopefully they’ll get a sense not to give up. That’s what we’re trying to instill in them. There’s going to be trials and tribulations to go through. You’ll have downfalls, but as long as you get up every time and work at it, you can achieve your goals.”

The Read to Achieve Program is something Jones believes in whole-heartedly.

“It’s gives them a chance to understand that they’re not the only ones reading. We’re grown ups, we’re in the NBA, but we can still pull out a book and read and have time to hang out with them. We try to show them that reading is fundamental.”

The camp saw 60 to 80 wide-eyed b-ballers come out to learn the basic skills required to play the sport. The stands were full of excited parents, cheering on their little ones.

The decision to visit Mistissini was an easy one, according to Sefu Bernard, Coordinator of Basketball Development for the Raptors.

“This visit is a very important extension of what we’re doing from a community outreach perspective,” he told the Nation. “Our mandate isn’t to just stay in Toronto, it’s to reach out and spread the game, but more importantly some positive values.”

“It’s a misconception that Toronto and Vancouver are the only basketball communities in the country. The game is alive and healthy in a lot of different regions so it’s wonderful to see how warm the welcome has been.”

The sport, as Hudson pointed out, sometimes takes a back seat to the more important Read to Achieve Program.

“Read to Achieve is something we do quite actively in any city we visit. It’s a league-mandated program. Education and literacy is so important. It’s something we rest our hats on in terms of promoting in different cities. This is the first time we’ve been up here and hopefully won’t be the last.”

Bernard was optimistic. The smiling faces and the athleticism of the kids made the trip an enjoyable and eye opening experience for himself and his players.

“The underlying issues that surround symptoms such as drug and alcohol abuse and sexual and physical abuses are the issues of a sense of hopelessness. The message that we’ve been trying to reinforce is that there is hope. Set dreams, whether they’re athletic or personal or artistic, the underlying theme is the same. You can achieve your goals, but you have to set them first,” said Bernard, who emphasized the learning experience for his players as well as the kids.

Hudson said that basketball, which he sees as the second most popular sport in Eeyou Istchee behind hockey, might be the catalyst for bigger and better things for Cree youth.

“I’ve got a young man here who is 17 years old and 6-foot-6 and if he applies himself, he has the ability to attend a division 1 or 2 school in the states and from there anything is possible. If Steve Nash at 6-foot-1 can make it, anyone can,” said Hudson.

Steve Einish, 17, might be the one Hudson was talking about. With immense talent and a confident, brash style, Einish said he dunked on Fred Jones during the camp. When asked how Jones reacted, Einish smiled and replied “he cried.” Sounds like he already has the attitude needed to succeed in the NBA, now all he needs is the motivation.