Literacy network struggles to survive – Opinion – Literacy network struggles to survive
February 11, 2009.   Carol Goar

Its financial lifeline has been cut, but the Canadian Centre of Excellence for Literacy refuses to die.

Its director Don Jamieson, an audiologist at the University of Western Ontario, received the bad news a year ago: Ottawa was pulling the plug on the cross-country network of researchers, educators, librarians, speech therapists and literacy advocates that he and his colleagues had spent eight years building.

It wasn’t entirely a surprise. The same thing had happened to two earlier centres of excellence in the social sciences, one on aging and one on tele-learning. They were “sunsetted,” as federal officials tactfully put it, while their counterparts in the hard sciences – engineering, medicine, telecommunications, industrial design – received funding extensions.

The literacy network’s grant ($3.5 million a year) ended on March 31, 2008. Since then, it has been running on momentum and goodwill.

But Jamieson knew it would eventually peter out. So he scrounged up money from a variety of sources to craft a long-term survival plan. Last week, he brought it to Toronto to brief local supporters and enlist their help.

“We could write a superb document and nobody would care, other than the people in this room,” he told the 80 or so activists who gathered at the Royal York Hotel. “To get traction, we have to reach the people outside this room.”

It won’t be easy, he warned.

A significant number of Canadians don’t believe the illiteracy rate is as high as Statistics Canada says it is. (According to the federal agency, 42 per cent of adults and 39 per cent of youth lack the literacy skills to get a good job and cope with the demands of today’s knowledge society.)

Nor do they believe that boosting the literacy rate would have a substantial economic impact. (According to Craig Alexander, deputy chief economist at the TD Bank, a 1 per cent increase in the literacy rate would raise the national income by $32 billion.)

The first challenge, Jamieson said, is to convince them the problem is real.

The second challenge is to show them there are cost-effective ways to fix it.

To begin the process, he is launching a set of national hearings, one in every provincial capital. Each city will put together its own panel, consisting of a business leader, a prominent citizen and a sports or entertainment figure. The literacy network will supply policy experts. Local social service organizations will find individuals willing to speak publicly about how reading changed their lives.

The morning will be devoted to presentations. The afternoon will be an open forum for questions, testimonials and brainstorming.

Jamieson admits he is copying former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, who led a national health-care inquiry eight years ago. He hopes to create the same kind of groundswell Romanow did.

The difference, of course, is that Ottawa is not behind this effort. Prime Minister Stephen has cut literacy funding by $17.7 million.

“It’s coming from the bottom up,” Jamieson said. “It is a response to not having the issue addressed at either the federal or provincial level.”

Ultimately, he acknowledged, government support will be needed. The literacy network cannot disseminate knowledge and support local activities without funding. It cannot improve test scores unless its findings are incorporated into school curriculums and teaching practices.

Literacy advocates have lobbied tirelessly with statistics, studies, cost-benefit analyses and personal appeals, Jamieson pointed out.

“We need to create champions. We need to persuade people. We need to raise the national energy level.”

The hearings begin next month. Toronto’s is scheduled for March 18.

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