An Icy Alexandria

One of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's most famous quotes is "You won’t recognize Canada when I’m through with it."

There is some debate as to whether he actually said it but Noah Richler cited the quote in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War and an excerpt from that book, including the quote, was published in the National Post.

Whether he said it or not, or whether he meant all the meanings that have been ascribed to the quote, the idea that Stephen Harper would say and think such a thing resonates with many Canadians.

This week it is resonating, once again, with people who do research.

In the wake of the announcement that seven Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries will closed this year, the  CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)'s Fifth Estate published a list of the federal programs and research facilities have been shut down or had their funding reduced by the federal government.

It is a long list. People are comparing this to the burning of the Library of Alexandria but a more Canadian metaphor might be the one Tannis Atkinson used in 2009 to describe the prospects for research that could support literacy practice and programs in her last editorial at Literacies: Nothing but ice, ice, ice as far as we can imagine.
What about the Canadian literacy library and research list? What would it look like?

Well, it might start with the National Literacy Secretariat - NLS (2007) and include, among others,
  • Phase 2 of the Framework for Adult Literacy Research in Canada project to develop an infrastructure for research in practice that would bring together all the organizations, databases and networks currently supporting research initiatives and create a cohesive, sustainable pan-Canadian research network (2007);
  • the AlphaPlus library which housed a pan-Canadian collection of adult education resources many of which are not available digitally (2007);
  • the Festival of Literacies which was a pan-Canadian research in practice knowledge centre based at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (2008); and
  • the Literacies research journal (2009) where much of the research conducted with NLS funding was reported and discussed;
  • the database of Canadian literacy research, The Directory of Canadian Adult Literacy Research (2009); and
  • RiPAL-BC (Research in Practice in Adult Literacy), a grass roots network of individuals and organizations committed to research in practice in adult literacy in British Columbia (2009).
The former National Adult Literacy Database (now Copian), another essential part of the pan-Canadian research in practice infrastructure, saw it's federal funding cut 25% in 2012 and another 15% in 2013 (PDF).

The federal government still participates in research about literacy statistics through Statistics Canada and occasionally the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills invites "eligible organizations" to
"submit proposals to indicate their interest in being part of a Pan-Canadian Network (PCN) focused on improving the labour market outcomes of Canadians through strengthened LES."
which represents quite a shift from the NLS' focus on these 4 types of research
  • Understanding the literacy skills of the Canadian population and assessing the implications of these findings (including statistical and demographic research).
  • Investigating new ways to assist various groups of Canadians in developing literacy skills (policy research).
  • Assessing the nature and effectiveness of efforts to address literacy needs (program-related research).
  • Understanding better how people develop literacy skills (pedagogical research).
and on
Research support provided by the NLS should help to develop Canada's capacity for literacy research. This means funding for research projects, for infrastructure, and for the training of future researchers.

The closing of libraries and the defunding of research diminishes us all. Not only do we lose our capacity to recognize ourselves but we lose our ability to wave across the room at international colleagues. 

Occasionally literacy researchers were funded by the NLS to attend international conferences to share research questions and findings and to learn about what was being asked and explored elsewhere. Now if we were to show up, we would show up with a much narrower offering. 

Canada's strength was not only that is supported 4 areas of research that captured a wide range of interests and needs but that it supported both academic and practice-based researchers as well as collaborations between the two groups.
Given the real possibility of dialogue between literacy workers and New Literacy researchers, literacy workers will be able to use the New Literacy research to clarify and further develop models for literacy work. New Literacy researchers will, in turn, benefit from accounts of literacy learning by literacy workers and from ideas by literacy workers about how the New Literacy Studies might apply to their work.
A new kind of research is emerging which is close to the ground and speaks directly to practitioners. It is worth reading, critiquing and applying to our practice. As well as reading, we need to write about our work. We can better support our learners and ourselves if we use our own literacy abilities to shape this work that we love.
Practitioners Making Time to Read and Write
by Sheila Stewart, Literacies #1, spring 2003

The pages of Literacies reflect the efforts, from 2003 to 2009, of the research-in-practice community to expand the range of practitioners who contributed to research and to discussions about research and the last issue reflects, well, the end of all that.
What was lost was not simply the NLS but the capacity of the federal government to play a catalyst role in creating a more literate society through developing and nurturing partnerships.
Right now the climate is not particularly conducive to genuine education. We are no longer allowed to ask literacy for what, literacy for whom. We are no longer allowed to say that literacy is a right rather than a charitable enterprise. Instead, in many parts of the country (those where basic literacy programs still exist), we are told we should be saying essential skills for all, so that the GDP will grow. So these are frozen wastelands, as far as genuine education is concerned. … As far as research that could support practice and programs? Nothing but ice, ice, ice as far as we can imagine.
by Tannis Atkinson, Literacies #10, spring 2009

Okay Literacy people, what will spring 2014 bring?
So why do I hold the image of spring in my mind? When I think of ice, I remember that it breaks by cracking. The huge dissonance between what is happening in programs and the ridiculous rhetoric that seeks to define literacy are creating cracks. Cracks can only lead to change. So let us consider that dissonance as rich in potential to foment change. Let us keep naming what doesn’t make sense. Let us keep clear about what we know to be true and real, and what is just nonsense. And let’s keep speaking out.
by Tannis Atkinson, Literacies #10, spring 2009

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