Milestone for literacy movement – Opinion – Milestone for literacy movement
March 04, 2009.   Carol Goar

It was a celebration of survival. Success would be too grandiose a claim.

Canada’s literacy movement is 150 years old.

It has withstood economic storms, hostile governments and overbearing educators. It has managed without money, facilities or paid staff. It has taken root in unlikely places and thrived in hard times.

“We have a long, rich, proud history,” said Allan Quigley, one of the country’s leading champions of adult education. “But guess what? We’re still in church basements.”

Last week, literacy advocates from across the country gathered at the Toronto Reference Library for the launch of Beyond the Book: Learning from our History. It tells the story of Canada’s literacy movement from the lumber camps of Northern Ontario to the E-channel.

But it wasn’t just a book launch. It was a chance for those who believe that every Canadian has a right to read – regardless of age, income or background – to come together in the face of adversity.

Quigley, lead author of the book and a professor of adult education at St. Francis Xavier University, began by asking if anyone knew the origins of literacy training in Canada. None of the 85 people in the room had a clue.

The birthplace was Kingston. Times were tough. In 1859, the YMCA invited all young men in the fading commercial centre to attend Monday evening lessons in reading, spelling and grammar.

“This is not a new idea,” Quigley said. “We were here before Confederation.”

As he took his audience through a century and a half of breakthroughs and setbacks, several strong themes emerged:

* Literacy has always been pushed to the margins of the school system. Charities, churches and community groups built Canada’s adult education network. Politicians and pedagogues were reluctant conscripts. “We live with an unrelenting sense of impermanence,” Quigley said.
* The desire to learn is inextinguishable. No matter how self-conscious, poor or oppressed people are, they want to read. No matter how tired workers are, they find the stamina to study. Each successive generation of literacy pioneers has been told its efforts were futile or misguided. Each has proven the naysayers wrong.
* Literacy is inseparable from social justice. People share their skills because they want to spread the gospel, fight poverty, help workers get better jobs, welcome immigrants and strengthen their communities. From the earliest Bible classes to today’s adult learning programs, the intent of literacy has been to lift those at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid to a place where they can get a foothold and keep climbing.

One of the best things about literacy – especially at a time like this – is that it’s a bargain.

Most of the work is voluntary. Most of the classes take place in libraries, church basements, community centres or schools after hours. There is no hierarchy of officials and administrators. As Quigley put it, “it’s a tool, not a school.”

The literacy movement has flickered in recent years. Some of the lights still haven’t come back on since Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government chopped funding for adult learning by $17.7 million in 2006.

“We hung on by our fingernails,” said Lesley Brown, executive director of the Ontario Literacy Coalition. “Now our time has come. People need basic skills if they’re going to retrain and find work.”

No one at last week’s book launch expected a secure or comfortable future. Fortunately they know how to produce miracles on a shoestring.

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