Pall Hangs over Family Literacy Day

By Goar, Carol | Our Schools, Our Selves, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Pall Hangs over Family Literacy Day


Goar, Carol, Our Schools, Our Selves


Tomorrow is Family Literacy Day. It's the ninth annual celebration of all the activities - from surfing the Web to holding a singalong - that reading makes possible.

But there's a pall over this year's festivities. Four months ago, Stephen Harper's government slashed literacy funding by $17.7 million.

Learn-to-read programs that used to be held at local libraries have disappeared. Volunteers who depended on provincial literacy organizations for materials and support don't know where to turn. National coalitions such as ABC Canada are struggling to minimize the damage.

There will still be readings and contests and plays and games across the country tomorrow. Ottawa hasn't killed - and can't kill - the desire of Canadians to share the written word.

There will still be tall tales and live heroes. Children's author Robert Munsch, honorary chair of Family Literacy Day, has spent the past week visiting elementary schools, telling stories and encouraging kids to tell him theirs. Sports celebrities are speaking out about the importance of reading.

There will still be packed libraries. Toronto is offering special activities at many of its 99 branches. (A list of programs is available at http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca). The Wolfville Memorial Library, in Nova Scotia, is holding a family sleepover.

There will still be literacy lunches, Internet story exchanges and book drives.

But the main beneficiaries will be Canadians who already read. The Harper government has made it harder for those who can't to find help - and harder for those who want to help them to reach out.

What puzzles literacy advocates, even as they wind down their operations, is the utter senselessness of dismantling a program that cost so little and worked so well.

For 20 years, the National Literacy Secretariat, set up by Brian Mulroney and maintained by Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, served as a focal point for all levels of government as well as the private sector and hundreds of voluntary organizations. Together, they built a network that extended into every community. It was sustained by the goodwill of ordinary citizens.

It had a budget of $42 million a year - $2.62 per taxpayer.

"The National Literacy Secretariat has been the best and most efficient and most committed of any agency I've watched in all my years in Ottawa," said Senator Joyce Fairbairn, who has worked on Parliament Hill since 1964.

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