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Letters from Pop Illustrations by Esther Yoon.

Letters from Pop

Jennifer Verma explores the legacy of illiteracy in her home province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

As a child, I remember my grandfather flipping pages of my storybook, his index finger slowly tracing the words. I thought this was for my benefit. Only later did I learn it was for his. When we came across a word we didn’t know, he’d say, “Let’s call it wheelbarrow,” code for we’ll borrow this word until we figure it out. If there were too many wheelbarrows, Pop would close the book and tell his own stories, returning to tales at sea.

Pop was my paternal grandfather, Reginald Thornhill, a fisherman from the Burin Peninsula in Newfoundland. He was the last fisher in our family lineage of fishers, dating back to the late 1700s or early 1800s, when my third-great-grandparents first settled on the island from England. Outport fishing communities along the coast of Newfoundland existed because of Atlantic cod. Pop, like many involved in the cod fishery, spent more time at sea than on land at the peak of his career. He couldn’t swim, but survived shipwrecks and close calls on the same treacherous waters that had downed the Titanic and birthed a tsunami.

For everything he could do, Pop couldn’t read or write. He reported as much in the 1945 Newfoundland census. At the time, he was thirty-two, his wife (my grandmother) was twenty-eight, and their first two boys, my uncles Clyde and John, were three and one. According to the census, my uncles could read and write. It was an interesting report given the contradictory record of 1935, which cited Pop could write but not read. Then there was the oddity of two toddlers being profoundly literate. Were they child prodigies? No offence to my uncles, but likely not. In fact, the census appears to have multiple incorrect entries, but I like to think it reflects Pop’s determination to ensure his boys—there were four of them, including my uncle Reginald and my father, Donald, by 1948—would gain the formal education he never had. 

Many saw the depleting cod stocks and the traditional fishery under siege long before the July 1992 cod moratorium put at least thirty thousand fishermen across Newfoundland and Labrador out of work. In the years preceding and following the moratorium, which still represents the largest industrial layoff in Canadian history, many sought the bigger and the brighter that elsewhere had to offer, pursuing an education or careers promising a future the fishery no longer could. For Pop, those were not feasible options. He’d retired from the Grand Banks fishery decades previous, and died in 1987 at seventy-four, just five years before the moratorium. And yet, my grandfather still taught himself to read and write. Before the days of unlimited long-distance calling, Pop’s motivation may have been as simple as wanting to read and respond to letters from his sons and family, most of whom had long since left Little Bay East.

Thirty years after he died, I hold one of the many letters Pop wrote to my father. It’s written in blue ink with cursive writing on lined paper showing its age, discoloured beige with frayed edges. The letter is dated January 27, 1979, the year before I was born. It begins, “Dear sun Don. Just a few words to let you now I recived your litter whas good to hear from you over their. and whas very glad what yous send me…” To touch those words on the page, as imperfect as they are, is remarkable. To think, Pop broke the literacy barrier that held him and so many like him back. As I read the letter, I’m filled with pride. But I also wonder how Pop would feel to know poor literacy still threatens Newfoundlanders today.

Adult literacy levels in Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) rank among the lowest at home and abroad, and they have for decades. Part of that legacy is surely a carryover from the province’s historical focus on fishing over formal education, with many having gained skills on the land and the sea as opposed to the classroom. (Until 1983, secondary education in the province ended at Grade 11 and labour jobs prioritized perfecting repetitive skills like fish processing over developing critical thinking skills, further contributing to low literacy.) Another factor is the province’s greying population; as people retire from the workforce, their literacy skills invariably decline. Yet another factor may be interprovincial migration, the brain drain of young, educated professionals leaving the province for study and employment in other parts of Canada—it’s one of the primary reasons for NL’s slow population growth, which reached 1 percent between the 2011 and 2016 censuses compared to the national average of 5 percent. Then, there are recent public policy measures such as funding cuts to literacy programs, implementation of a new “book tax” and the threat of public library closures, which run in opposition to any possible progress towards improved adult literacy rates.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that NL earned a “D” grade for adult literacy on the Conference Board of Canada’s “How Canada Performs” report card. Based on the 2012 international Survey of Adult Skills, the report card deemed NL the poorest performer among poor performers. While no province earned above a “C” and many earned a “D,” NL took home the title of “sole below-average province,” with nearly 60 percent of its adults possessing inadequate literacy skills. Data from a decade earlier (then, collected through the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey) show that NL scored “significantly below the national average”;  data from the next previous decade (the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey) demonstrate similarly underwhelming results for the province.

Ryan Crocker, spokesperson for the province’s department of advanced education, acknowledges that NL performs below the Canadian average in literacy and numeracy. But he also points out a bright spot: people aged sixteen to thirty performed at or above the national average. Crocker attributes this to the quality of primary, secondary and post-secondary education that NL’s population receives. Crocker also references improvements in the province’s high school drop-out rate. Two decades ago, the drop-out rate was almost 20 percent. The most recent statistics show a high school graduation rate of 96.6 percent, with 70 percent achieving an academic or honours diploma (compared to 58.7 percent in 2002–03).

While gaining a high school diploma certainly helps, a recent report examining Canada’s adult literacy performance from the international surveys in 2003 and 2012 finds that we have experienced a decline in literacy and numeracy skills despite achieving higher levels of education than ever before. This is according to the C.D. Howe Institute’s November 2017 report, “Talkin’ ’Bout My Generation: More Educated, But Less Skilled Canadians,” by Parisa Mahboubi. The finding that higher education in and of itself does not equate to higher literacy is further supported by a September 2017 report, “Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Performance: An International Comparison,” by Melissa Lalonde and Dr. Matthew McKean of the Conference Board of Canada. College and university graduates in Canada tend to score lower on literacy than their international counterparts, says McKean. While more Canadians have post-secondary education than the international average, both studies find a weak relationship between level of education and literacy and numeracy skills. Mahboubi sums it up: “More education does not necessarily guarantee more skills.”

The data makes the case: literacy is complex. Dr. Doris Gillis, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, defines literacy as what people need to lead their everyday lives in a complex, information-rich and highly technical society. “It’s very easy to stigmatize people when you get to a very minimalistic kind of view of literacy as not being able to read or write or have numeracy,” says Gillis. “Newfoundland is a great example. People are really resilient, and they’re able to adjust to a lot.”

Literacy goes beyond reading and writing to people’s ability to adapt to their current societies, says Gillis. It’s less about the skills people may be lacking and more about their capability to keep pace with the demands they face in their day-to-day lives. That’s why a modern definition of literacy considers health, finances and information technology, among other areas.

Linda Shohet, founder and former executive director of The Centre for Literacy in Quebec, which permanently closed its doors in 2015, makes a similar case. Too often, she says, people minimize what literacy is about. “Somehow, it’s just about all these poor people who don’t know how to read and write,” Shohet says. “In industrialized countries, that isn’t what it means at all… literacy in industrialized countries in the last forty years has come to mean anywhere where there’s a gap between a level of skill and a level of capacity, and the… demands of work, health, or of being a citizen. If there’s a big gap between the skill level or the competency level that large numbers of people actually possess and what’s required in order to actually participate or participate effectively [in society], that’s called a literacy problem.”

This is as detrimental for societies as it is for individuals. From an individual standpoint, low literacy can lead to poorer health outcomes, says Dr. Irving Rootman, chair of the British Columbia Health Literacy Network Steering Committee. Lower literacy skills are associated with lengthier hospitalizations and greater risk for diseases like cervical cancer and diabetes as well as higher risk for early death. From a societal standpoint, the Conference Board of Canada reports that poor literacy is associated with economic problems (poor productivity, job loss and difficulty finding gainful employment) and other social consequences (less civic engagement and more social isolation). It’s a vicious cycle. Which comes first—low literacy or poor outcomes? Living with one is not a guarantee you’ll inherit the other, but the likelihood certainly increases.

“It’s a two-way street,” Rootman says. “If you’re not literate, you’re going to have a much more difficult time finding a good paying job. And if you’re poor, you’re going to have a difficult time getting out of that [situation] unless you can improve your literacy in other ways.”

Looking at NL’s job market and economic woes, Rootman’s words ring true. The same oil that inspired the Conference Board of Canada to dub NL a “runaway leader in economic growth among Canada’s provinces” in 2013 upset the economy when oil prices tanked the following year. Already tightened belts were further cinched in 2016 as a result. As NL faced an unprecedented deficit, the government’s budget that year slashed public programs and services and levied new taxes. The provincial library system was one of the services under the axe, scheduled to lose fifty-four of ninety-four libraries, therein yielding roughly $1 million in savings from the library board’s annual budget. Meanwhile, a new tax was added to all books sold in the province.

These steps provoked a major public outcry, leading government to stay the decision on the public library closures, retract the book tax and restore the library budget in 2017–18. Public consultations carried out by the provincial library board in fall 2016 show citizens remain particularly worried about losing local libraries; closures would disproportionately impact rural and remote communities and the people who live there—seniors who are isolated, people with low incomes, newcomers, job seekers, and children and youth.

Libraries are evolving to become community hubs, says Leigha Chiasson-Locke, Regional Librarian at the Provincial Resource Library in St. John’s. “For a long time, people associated libraries as a house of books,” she says. “That perspective is changing.” What libraries in NL offer is less about reading and literacy in the traditional sense and more about lifelong learning and a more encompassing view of literacy, she adds. They focus on physical and health literacy, for example, offering fitness classes such as yoga and swing dance as well as information sessions on topics like active aging, autism and “gender creativity.” Libraries also offer help for patrons wanting to prepare for tax season or survive times of economic hardship. Digital literacy has become a priority too, with many people learning basic computer skills such as how to use a computer or tablet, while others seek out more advanced skills, like learning how to code. Not every library offers every program, but all libraries are evolving as meeting spaces, learning places, places where people go to work together and garner new skills.

As libraries expand to serve greater and more complex literacy goals, closing them seems especially nearsighted. And yet a 2017 provincial review of the public library system suggests that’s exactly what may still happen, largely due to fiscal constraints and small rural populations—the very isolation that makes Newfoundland and Labrador’s libraries so necessary also makes them particularly difficult to fund.

I remember visiting the Corner Brook Public Libraryas a child. My sisters and I borrowed as many books as the library would allow, stocking up on four or five each until we returned for the next haul. Each time, I’d crack open the new-to-me book and press my nose firmly to its pages, savouring the scent of the library. My parents never missed an opportunity to read me a bedtime story, and books were always the exception to a chorus of nos as we stood in grocery store checkout lines asking for this and that. When we came across challenging words, my father didn’t resort to wheelbarrows—though he’d taken Pop’s wheelbarrow lesson to heart in other areas of his life, if he didn’t know the answer to a book-related question, he’d make it his business to find out.

Dad was from a generation of Newfoundlanders bridging two eras—coming from rural fishing communities and branching into new careers. He and his brothers attended mostly one-room schoolhouses. My dad, like his older brother Clyde, took advantage of an education subsidy and became an X-ray technician. On the side, he drew house plans and built homes, including our own. Though he couldn’t read sheet music, he had an innate ability to play a new instrument and carry a tune. I remember joking that he could fix anything with a metal hanger and roll of duct tape. Just a generation later, my sisters and I were lucky to live in a community with a bustling library, with two parents who loved to read.

It’s a far different reality than what might have been had my father pursued the same life and career as Pop in Little Bay East. Little Bay East, where the Thornhill family has lived for more than a century and a half, is on the southeastern shore of Newfoundland. It’s an outport fishing community surrounded by other outport fishing communities along the Burin Peninsula on Fortune Bay. Today, Little Bay East has a population of around 120. Corner Brook, by comparison, is a pulp and paper town, home to nearly 20,000 residents; it serves as an important hub for western NL.

Pop’s 1979 letter paints a picture of a way of life I could have been introduced to when I was born in 1980. He writes about the “very hard frost” that winter and how he had already burned through five bags of coal and a cord of wood by the new year. He also writes about his water supply being threatened by a worrisome looking dam, and his fiftieth year of fishing. “I cross off my samlon licences and I had a call from a girl what works with the fisherys she said mr thornhill do you foget to mark in your samlon licences,” he writes. “I said I dinte want nether one. but you she said if you dont get one this year you would get one nixt year she said. so any way when I recived my dory number I got a samlon licences too but I got my net gone I dont worry about because it too much dirt gone around now better to try to gig a few codfish.”

Pop’s letter captures one scene after another of the outport lifestyle. With the nearest public library some sixty kilometres away, I imagine we would have visited it infrequently. I too would have learned skills off the land and sea rather than off a library bookshelf.

When the library closures were announced with the 2016 budget in NL, the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador cautioned government that their decision would harm the people they serve and the province at large. “Studies have shown that a 1 percent increase in average literacy scores can result in a permanent 1.5 percent increase in GDP per capita,” reads their press release. “The $1 million the government has calculated it will save by closing more than half the libraries of this province is not worth the long-term inequalities and further economic decline such a move will cause.”

Similar arguments arose over the “book tax,” which the government estimated would yield a revenue of $2.1 million annually, provided book sales stayed constant. Across Canada, books are subject to a 5 percent federal sales tax, while provinces rebate their portion at the point of sale (meaning no additional tax is charged); introducing the new tax made NL the first and only province in Canada to charge a provincial sales tax on books. Between January and December 2017, book buyers (whether purchasing from bricks and mortar stores or online retailers) in NL were charged the 5 percent federal tax on top of a new 10 percent provincial tax.

Matt Howse, owner and operator of Broken Books in St. John’s—one of the few independent bookstores operating in the province—says the book tax hit small shops like his particularly hard. Howse, who opened Broken Books in late spring 2014, noticed a climb in sales through early 2016. “I was getting all optimistic for the spring and summer,” says Howse. Then, things changed. “Putting the book tax on the table seems to have ensured a drop in sales,” he says.

Before the tax came into effect, Howse met with the NL Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation, Christopher Mitchelmore. The meeting turned into an education session of sorts. Howse found himself explaining how the 10 percent tax would mean that a novel would cost an extra two to three dollars—for example, a $19.95 book would cost $23, taxes in. His remark surprised government leadership, who’d quoted the average paperback book price as ten to twelve dollars, making the additional cost per book somewhere around a dollar and $1.20.

“To which I said, ‘Do you only buy your books at Costco? In what world does a novel cost twelve bucks?’” recounts Howse. “This is the degree to which the Minister of Tourism, Culture, Industry and Innovation doesn’t engage with the world of literature. He doesn’t know how much a paperback novel costs.”

In Nova Scotia, the government had considered a similar book tax in recent years but abandoned the idea after widespread pushback, much of it making the case that books are essential items rather than luxury goods.

Rootman points out that, in the past, provinces often took cues from the federal government. The federal body responsible for improving literacy in Canada is called the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES). Though the office’s average budget was $28 million between 2000 and 2006, it has since dropped significantly, to an average of $18 million. Even with a reduced budget, the office repeatedly underspends, according to revelatory blog posts by former employee Brigid Hayes. Now an independent consultant, Hayes writes online about adult literacy in Canada.

According to her blog, OLES underspent by nearly $10 million in their last fiscal year, 2016–17. Approved for over $18 million, the office spent under $8.5 million. Hayes contends that the spending situation has, so far, worsened under Trudeau: while an average of 57 percent of the OLES budget was spent annually during the Harper years, only 47 percent was spent during Trudeau’s first full year. On her blog, Hayes lambasts the office. “[If] parliament thought literacy was important enough to authorize spending,” writes Hayes, “why is it that OLES can’t spend the money it has been given?”

By 2014, much of the three decades of infrastructure that contributed to literacy development in this country had been wiped out, says Linda Shohet. National organizations like the Canadian Learning and Literacy Network and resources like COPIAN (formerly the National Adult Literacy Database) were shuttered around the same time as The Centre for Literacy in Quebec, along with other provincial literacy agencies in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and NL. The closure of these institutions has hampered research and data collection. While Statistics Canada compiles cross-provincial data, this data is high-level and now five years out of date. It also doesn’t provide regional- and community-level data on variations within provinces, or information on the programs and policies behind the rankings that address issues like why Alberta and British Columbia consistently outperform Saskatchewan and NL. This lack of comparable information has made it nearly impossible to research literacy, save for local community-based projects.

The Harper government’s decision to rename OLES (formerly the National Literacy Secretariat) in 2007 also signalled a shift from the office’s broad focus on literacy (for example, family literacy, community literacy and workplace literacy) to a more exclusive focus on workplace literacy, says Shohet.

Before Shohet’s centre closed, it hosted a summer institute for people in the field. The institute gave Shohet insight into how literacy programs were succeeding—or not—in other provinces. She recalls one year, shortly after the cod moratorium, a Newfoundland teacher seconded by government to work on developing literacy programming for displaced fishermen participated in the institute. Several programs had arisen in NL during the early to mid-nineties, with two of them offering financial aid while requiring recipients to either accept early retirement packages or retrain for work in other areas with literacy, basic education, university courses or entrepreneurial training. But these courses often left trainees ill-prepared for return to work.

“Although the programs gave out-of-work fishing people a degree of financial security during difficult times, they did not adequately prepare them for work in other fields,” reports the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website. “Individuals who left high school years or even decades earlier to work in the fishery were suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar and often intimidating academic environment. Some did not complete their programs, while others found they were of no practical use to their future lives.”

Arguably, these programs were less about creating a future as they were about remedying the past. They aimed to eliminate the problem of too many fishermen fishing too few fish. A more forward-thinking approach would have supplied training taking into account the low literacy of the newly unemployed and connecting them to available jobs once their training was completed. Since that didn’t happen, in the decade following the moratorium, the province’s population dropped by a record 10 percent as out-of-work fishers and plant workers sought employment elsewhere. Even today, out-migration continues as unemployment levels remain high.

“If you want to take cod fishermen and have them go and work in the seal factory or construction, then don’t spend your time getting them Grade 12; figure out what they need to be successful to get into the training to get into another industry or occupation,” says Hayes. “There’s a big push to get the credential—the GED or Grade 12—as opposed to raising people up so they function well in daily life, job and community. Not to put down the credential, but sometimes that’s not as important to the individual. We don’t sit in the workplace to read Shakespeare.” If employment is the goal, says Hayes, then training needs to respond to labour market needs identified by employers and community members.

Hayes points to a successful example—the development of the offshore oil platform, the Hibernia Gravity Base Structure, southeast of St. John’s, NL. Rather than import tower crane operators and other labourers, the labour strategy, led by the operating engineers, focused on training and employing Newfoundlanders. The project was a success, says Hayes, because the training combined literacy and numeracy skills in a highly specialized field with a specific workplace outcome for the trainees and economic development for the province. In other words, the literacy training was attached to real jobs that would also boost the local economy.

Still, a modern society must encourage people to develop skills for both work and daily life. And doing this is the job of many. “That’s where I think the federal government really moving away from a leadership role has really put a damper on things,” says Hayes. “Each province is trying to figure it out all by themselves.”

The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) brings provinces and territories together to set education priorities, but even at that table adult literacy remains the poor cousin of literacy programming, which tends to prioritize early learners, school-aged children and youth. Targeting early childhood education makes sense, says Doug Currie, PEI’s former education minister. Citizens want to invest in the next generation and the evidence overwhelming backs up that idea.

The evidence also tells us that ignoring adult literacy is detrimental to the economy and democracy alike. People with low literacy are less likely to find steady work and contribute to society. Jean Blackwood is one of the many adults in NL who benefit from a publicly funded literacy program. Now seventy-three, Blackwood says she was motivated to improve her reading skills in her fifties, once her five children were grown and she had free time. Blackwood had only finished Grade 5, working her entire life as a “cleaning lady” like her mother did. Now that she has improved her literacy skills, she says her life has changed.

“I don’t mind going out anywhere now. I can get on a computer—that’s one good thing and I learned how to work on that,” she says. “I go to meetings and I speak up more.”

She’s even written and published a poem, with another slated for publication. Through one-to-one tutoring at the local library (the same one my sisters and I visited growing up), at-home online training and various other individual and group programs over the years—sponsored in part by the federal and provincial governments—Blackwood has gained the confidence she lacked for much of her life. But her renewed interest in reading was really sparked by her desire to read about world history and to read with her grandchildren. “My youngest granddaughter is seven and me and her, when she comes down to my house three times a week, that’s all we does,” says Blackwood. “She has so much knowledge that she blows my mind. She can get on the computer and read things, and me and her together, that’s what we do all day—is education. It’s just a dream come true for me.”

I can’t help but think of my own grandfather as Blackwood describes her inability to help her children with their schooling through the years. When it came to the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—my father and uncles all learned the wheelbarrow lesson from Pop. There was an important teaching in that, after all. The lesson was this: be resourceful. Don’t let that one word or fact or tidbit of information prevent you from seeing the big picture. Don’t let a small bump in the road become a barrier. Keep going.

As I review Pop’s 1979 letter, I notice some peculiarities. At the end of most pages, he writes “next page” or “over,” signalling it’s time to turn the page. Most people don’t need that level of instruction and it reminds me of something I might have done as a child. He also includes a number of handwritten corrections, like repeatedly changing “off” to “of” (“off”) and crossing out unnecessary words (like when he repeats himself: “you you”). He draws a tiny image of a squid over his attempt at spelling the word (“skuid”), and writes a few extra lines at the top of the last two pages: “so I say good night night” and “I well learn after a wile to write a litter.” For all its imperfections, it’s a perfect letter to me. Pop managed to write six whole pages of text.

Today, Pop’s story reads like a necessary lesson for Newfoundland and Labrador. Having faced more than its share of bumps in the road, there’s still hope. Holding my father’s letter from Pop is all the proof I need.