Literacy funding cuts pose serious threats

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By Sen. Catherine Callbeck (guest opinion)

For the second time in a decade, federal government cuts to literacy funding are threatening the existence of the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance, as well as provincial literacy organizations elsewhere.

These groups used to receive core federal funding, but the government indicated it was moving to project specific funding instead. So last year when the government asked for proposals, organizations across the country sent in their applications.  

But in recent weeks, this government has rejected those funding proposals. The provincial literacy organizations lost their core funding, and now their project specific proposals have been denied.  

The decision is having a serious impact. The P.E.I. Literacy Alliance has announced that the cuts will force them to close within six to nine months. Other provincial alliances may not survive that long.

Clearly this Conservative government does not realize what could be lost.  

In 2007 when this government moved to cut funding for literacy for the first time, the Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology undertook a study of the impacts. I was a member of the committee, and we invited Islander Dianne Smith to come to Ottawa to tell us about the challenges of low literacy and her experiences as an adult learner.  

Dianne told the committee that she left school in Grade 9, and had poor literacy skills as a result. She used to work three jobs to make ends meet.  

She told the committee: “When people talk about people in Prince Edward Island, who were held back because of low literacy skills, they are talking about me. For many reasons, I did not get the skills I needed as a youngster. As I was raising my children, I knew I had to get better work and better security for my family. I knew I had to work smarter, not harder.”

So Dianne decided to do something about it, and she went to the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance. They assessed her, and gave her two bursaries so that she could afford to get phonics training. She worked hard, and just before her 50th birthday, Dianne got her GED. With her new literacy skills, Dianne started her own business and opened a seniors home in Charlottetown. She now employs 15 people.  

Dianne credits the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance for their help, and I am absolutely sure there are many more stories like that one.

The Alliance does not stop with assistance to individual adult learners. It delivers a summer tutoring program for 700 to 800 Island students so they maintain and improve their skills over the summer months. The program employs Education students to do the tutoring, and so they get valuable teaching experience.

The Alliance also organizes and runs the annual Peter Gzowski Golf Tournament for Literacy fundraiser to gather money to pay for the summer program, as well as to provide literacy grants to local organizations. It provides bursaries and scholarships for adult learners like Dianne so that they can go back to school and upgrade their skills. It supports and promotes family literacy in P.E.I., and creates resources and partner with other organizations working on family literacy.  

These are the kinds of activities that will be lost with the end of federal literacy funding.    

It may be hard to believe, but 42 per cent of working age Canadians just do not have the literacy levels considered sufficient for a person to function well in today’s society. On P.E.I., the numbers are slightly worse — about 48 per cent. We simply cannot afford to lose the efforts of our only provincial literacy organization.     

Dianne Smith told the Committee in 2007: “Let me tell you that there is no better feeling than knowing I can support myself and have the independence and freedom to do what I want and not be beholden to anyone.”  

The federal government should be helping more people to achieve that kind of freedom, not shutting down one of the only organizations that helps provide it. Back in 2007, the government ultimately reversed some of its planned cuts, and the P.E.I. Literacy Alliance survived until now. I hope that kind of wisdom will prevail again this time around.     

Catherine Callbeck is an independent Liberal Senator for Prince Edward Island and a long-time advocate for literacy programs and services.

Organizations: P.E.I. Literacy Alliance, Senate Committee on Social Affairs

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Ottawa, Charlottetown

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