COFA Publication – Skills for the 21st Century

One of the many casualties of the withdrawal of support for coordination and information sharing at the federal level has been literacy publications. This gap has affected everyone, and programs are the poorer for not being able to learn about innovations in other parts of the country. A significant gap has been the lack of a way for francophone Canada to speak with Anglophone Canada.

Our friends at the Coalition ontarienne de formation des adultes (COFA) have produced a resource that helps bridge those gaps. COFA published a special edition of its magazine Perfectio and has generously translated it into English.

While many of the articles are targeted to the Ontario literacy community, I think people right across the country will find them of interest. The section covering essential, generic and language skills discusses how best to articulate skills at a time when the federal government is reviewing its Essential Skills Framework. Several articles address how to best make use of digital skills and tools, a timely topic during this pandemic.

Two articles attracted my attention. The first is a summary of the report Influences: Lessons from Policy and Practices in Literacy and Essential Skills in Canada 1990-2019. Linda Shohet and Isabelle Coutant took a deep dive into how the Essential Skills Framework shaped practice in Canada. The other piece that spoke to me was Senator Diane Bellemare’s speech on the “fourth industrial revolution.” Senator Bellemare calls for a Canadian strategy for lifelong learning based on a common language for skills, shared and effective funding, and development of a culture of lifelong learning.

I’m certain you will find many of the articles interesting and timely. As well, the journal highlights the perspectives of francophone practitioners to which anglophone practitioners often do not have access.

Here are the links to the English and the French versions:

The special edition entitled “Soar” of Perfectio magazine is now available in English and on line at the following address:

L’édition spéciale intitulée « Essor » du revue Perfectio est maintenant disponible en ligne à l’adresse suivante :

Posted in Coalition ontarienne de formation des adultes (COFA), Essential Skills, Federal Government and Literacy, Francophone literacy, International Literacy Surveys, Literacy and Essential Skills, Skills, Workplace Literacy | Leave a comment

John D. O’Leary Memorial Fund

John Daniel O’Leary’s family has set up a memorial fund with the Anishnawbe Health Foundation, where he was currently director of development. This will honour John at their new centre, which he was tirelessly raising money to help it get built. According to the family, he was so proud of the good work they are doing there.

Here’s the link to the memorial fund:

The family intends to have a funeral mass and memorial once we all get the public health green light.

Posted in Frontier College, John Daniel O'Leary, Literacy and Essential Skills, PGIs | Leave a comment

Another beautiful tribute to John O’Leary

I wanted to share with you a lovely tribute to John Daniel O’Leary created by his friend and former Frontier College President Jack Pearpoint: John Daniel O’Leary

Posted in Frontier College, John Daniel O'Leary, PGIs | Tagged | 2 Comments

In Memoriam – John Daniel O’Leary

John Daniel O’Leary passed away Tuesday April 14, 2020, the victim of a fire in his apartment.

John’s contribution to the literacy field was enormous. His vision of social justice led him to see literacy as a means to remove inequality in our society. He spent over 30 years at Frontier College, the last 17 years as President, a position he left in 2007. He developed many of the programs that still define Frontier today.

I first met John when I joined the National Literacy Secretariat in 1989. I recall a session with him where he wrote a sentence on the white board in Latin, taught us how to read and pronounce the sentence phonetically. Announced he had ‘taught us to read.’ The message he left with me that day was that literacy is more than knowing how to read – it’s what you understand, how you take the words and make them come alive, what you do with that knowledge, it’s reading the world not just the word. It was a message I have held to throughout my time working in literacy.

In 1991, he wrote Creating a Love of Reading for the NLS. This quote captures his voice:

Reading, writing and literacy mean far more than understanding words on paper. Literacy has a lot to do with enriching and discovering more about yourself, your personal dreams, ambitions and hopes — coming to understand that “sacred place inside.” Literacy also enables us to share this “sacred place” with others, either with an intimate friend or with the world, through “stories, songs, dances and art.” When you are reading or being read a favourite book, poem or story, the writer is sharing with you something of that “sacred place inside

John was part of most important Canadian literacy initiatives – ABC Canada, the Peter Gzowski Invitational Golf Tournaments for Literacy (the PGIs), the Business Task Force on Literacy, the Advisory Committee on Literacy and Essential Skills, to name only a few. His efforts were recognized with honourary degrees from Trent University and Carleton University.

Throughout my time at the National Literacy Secretariat, John was ever present, advocating for literacy, pushing the envelop, always with that steady voice of his. I listened today to his acceptance speech when receiving the honourary doctorate from Carleton. He delivered it virtually as he was in a care facility battling conditions that befell him later in life. It’s worth listening to: John Daniel O’Leary – Carleton University honourary degree

In 2018, John ran the Terry Fox Run, two years after having his left leg amputated to save his life. John ends his blog post (Two Words You Never Want to Hear) about his journey from hospital bed to running a 10K, with a poem honouring Terry Fox. Today, I honour John with the same poem by Stephen Spender:

I think continually of those who were truly great.

The names of those who in their lives fought for life

Who wore at their heart the fire’s center.

Born of the sun, they travelled a short while towards the sun,

And left the vivid air signed with their honour.

Posted in ABC Canada, Federal Government and Literacy, Frontier College, John Daniel O'Leary, literacies, Literacy and Essential Skills, National Literacy Secretariat (NLS), PGIs | 20 Comments

Resources from the literacy field

Following my post about the AlphaPlus’ website (Coping with COVID-19 – AlphaPlus resource) containing resources to cope during the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve heard from a few people about other resources.

CanLearn (Calgary) writes:

A fresh blog post from our website on literacy and poverty and covid-19. Please share widely, thanks for your help.

In addition, I did a quick Facebook scan of possible resources.

Access via Facebook:

Literacy Quebec is offering “Cozzzy Stories: Sleepy Stories for Cozy Listening Together” a virtual story and rhyme time. The next session is tonight (March 20) at 7:00 EDT with others scheduled for next Tuesday and Friday.

Literacy Network of Durham Region is hosting “Bibliotherapy”, a one-hour session with several relaxing readings to spark discussion, reflection and connection, Tuesday March 24 at 1:00 EDT.

The following Facebook pages have loads of suggestions and resources:

  • NWT Literacy Council
  • Ilitaqsiniq – Nunavut Literacy Council
  • Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick
  • PEI Literacy Alliance
  • Yamaska Literacy Council

Literacy folk across the country have resources for learners, families and organizations. This would be a great time to look at them and see if you can add them to your own. If we can’t meet and share in person, let’s at least do it virtually.

Stay safe, stay healthy


Posted in COVID-19, Ilitaqsiniq - Nunavut Literacy Council, Lilteracy Network of Durham Region, Literacy and Essential Skills, Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick, Literacy Quebec, NWT Literacy Council, PEI Literacy Alliance, Yamaska Literacy Council | Leave a comment

More Info about the AlphaPlus site

Sorry for not indicating in my previous post that LBS stands for the Literacy and Basic Skills program which is the Ontario government’s literacy program.

Further to yesterday’s post, Coping with COVID-19 – AlphaPlus resource I wanted to share two sets of comments I received as not everyone is able to track comments on my posts.

From Stephanie Hobbs of the Simcoe-Muskoka (ON) Literacy Network:

In your blog post, you could also mention that the AlphaPlus resources website is available in French as well.

I also heard from AlphaPlus Executive Director Alan Cherwinski who provided background on the incredible effort the team put into creating this website so quickly and under such challenging times. Thanks to everyone at AlphaPlus.

Thank you Brigid for sharing the link to the new site. The staff @ AlphaPlus, Christine, Guylaine, Maria, Monika, and Tracey did wonderful job of rapid web deployment (<48 hrs!) and knowledge mobilization. Everyone is very welcome to use the site and I welcome suggestions, feedback, and contributions.

Remote learning is not a top priority in learners’ hierarchy of needs in the current state of emergency, but I hope we (all of us across Canada) can gather and highlight some front-line stories of how learners are being impacted in their access to learning, government and health services/information, shopping, and community by the dual factors of literacy skills and limited digital access.

Christine brought this article to my attention this morning . It is on the radar in k-12.

Please let me know if you have any ideas on how we might go about gathering stories and when it might be appropriate to turn some attention to this topic.

Thanks for your encouraging words – I passed them onto the staff and they are much appreciated.


Posted in AlphaPlus, COVID-19, Literacy and Essential Skills | Leave a comment

Coping with COVID-19 – AlphaPlus resource

I hope everyone is staying safe and practicing good social distancing. I’m just back from two weeks in Cuba so am self-isolating for 14 days – might be able to write a few posts in my “spare time”.

These are challenging times for everyone – programs are closed, people are at home or else working on the front lines.

To help make things a bit easier, AlphaPlus has put together a website for literacy practitioners in Ontario to use during the COVID-19 crises. It is described as:

To help us all navigate the challenges of COVID-19, we have started LBS and COVID-19 a Google Site where we hope to share information and resources that will help the LBS community connect and learn together as we navigate this unfamiliar landscape.

The website includes:

* General announcements and updates from the government and LBS programs

* Links to information about COVID-19

* Tips and tools to support working from home – ideas for connecting online and via mobile apps, setting up online courses, sharing and managing content, even sending out texts from your computer

* Resources for learners to help them access online learning content while they don’t have access to on-site programs.

You can find the site at:

I’m sure our Ontario colleagues won’t mind you taking a peak at the site.


Posted in AlphaPlus, COVID-19, Literacy and Essential Skills | 4 Comments

Federal government treatment of the voluntary sector

Imagine Canada has put out a call for reforms to the way the federal government provides grants and contributions: “Making government grants work for communities”. The final line in the article states, “It’s time for a new era of trust and collaboration between non-profits and the government, and it can start with reimagining funding agreements.”

This issue has been out there for a terribly long time. Many years before I became involved in literacy, I was actively engaged in the issue of how the federal government treats charities and voluntary organizations. I first became aware when working with a national organization in 1978, when I read People in Action, the 1977 Report of the National Advisory Council on Voluntary Action. That report called for, among other things, minimum three-year funding agreements, sustaining (core) funding, and project funds that cover the design, administration and evaluation of projects.

I participated in the National Voluntary Organizations (NVO) Consultation ‘81, which called for simplifying and reducing conditions imposed on voluntary sector funding, the use of grants rather than contributions, and inter-governmental coordination.

Again at the NVO’s Consultation ‘84, delegates challenged the way in which the federal government treats the voluntary sector, not as a partner but as subservient to it. By this time, after a few years working for the NVO, I was recruited to join the Department of Secretary of State to work on the voluntary sector file which I did in various capacities until I got involved in literacy in 1989.

Of course, these issues directly affect literacy organizations and so I’ve continued to have a keen interest in them, not least of all because of the 1999 so-called “Grants and Contributions Crises” and the impact it had on how we did business at the National Literacy Secretariat (you can read my opinions on that situation here: literacies – From community development and partnerships to accountability).

These efforts continued with the 1999 Panel on Accountability and Governance in the Voluntary Sector, chaired by Ed Broadbent, that called for core funding and the development of joint funding principles. On the heels of this report came the 2001 Accord between the Government of Canada and the Voluntary Sector and A Code of Good Practice on Funding facilitated through the joint Voluntary Sector Initiative which lasted from 2000 to 2006. In the good practice code, the federal government committed to use multi-year funding agreements, allow for infrastructure type costs, recognize the various capacities of organizations to access funding, transparency, and appropriate levels of monitoring. The Imagine Canada article cites several more recent efforts to make the case for an improved relationship between the voluntary sector and the federal government.

All this to say, the inability of the federal government to reconcile its desire to forge a partnership with its apparent belief that grants and contributions need to be micro-managed has been going on for some time. You can sense my frustration – over 40 years later, the issues remain the same. What is different today is the lack of federal government attention to the voluntary sector’s issues since 2006 (although the Senate report dealt with the issues as they relate to registered charities).

The voluntary sector plays a pivotal role in the delivery of services, innovation, coordination, and research. Underfunding is an obvious concern but so too is the lack of trust, the “nickel and dime-ing” of groups, project funding with no provision for the true costs of administration, the absence of core funding, and the lack of evaluation and sharing of outcomes.

Imagine Canada is well positioned to lead this effort. I’d encourage literacy organizations and anyone working in the voluntary sector to check out their site:

Posted in Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Policy, Federal Government and Literacy, Grants and Contributions, Imagine Canada, voluntary sector | Leave a comment

An “alternative analysis” to Elfert and Walker

My recent post sharing Maren Elfert and Jude Walker’s paper The Rise and Fall of Adult Literacy in Canada elicited a number of responses including one from Scott Murray.

Scott, as many of you know, was the driving force behind Canada’s leadership in the International Adult Literacy Survey and subsequent surveys including the most recent PIAAC. Since leaving the federal government, Scott’s firm DataAngel has continued to work on large scale surveys and evaluations in the area of adult education and training.

Scott has taken issue with Maren and Jude’s paper and prepared a response which he asked me to share with you.

Murray – Pluck not the mote from thy neighbour’s eye Feb 21

Scott makes a number of points about the value of strong literacy skills, of targeting people in the workplace and about contributions made by essential skills projects.

However, I have issues with his response. Overall, I think Scott is not responding specifically to the Elfert/Walker piece but rather is presenting his assessment of literacy programs, which he seems to feel are “incapable of delivery the goods expected by public funders.” Throughout his paper, the tone is negative and at times sarcastic…“Ultimately, the vaunted literacy infrastructure failed to provide any evidence of meaningful returns on investment, relying instead on shrill protestations of “We are doing God’s work!”.” I don’t know what prompted him to use this tone.

I believe Scott mis-interpreted Maren and Jude’s definition of the literacy infrastructure. They write about the provincial/territorial and national literacy groups while Scott’s response focuses on the delivery of literacy programs. Maren and Jude don’t actually address literacy delivery.

The description of the federal government’s role (page 3) is limited focusing on the more recent efforts around Essential Skills. It does not account for the type of activities that the National Literacy Secretariat encouraged from 1989 to at least 2006, that is, developing learning materials, improving co-ordination and information sharing, improving access to literacy programs and outreach, increasing public awareness of literacy issues, and research. These activities show the breadth of what the federal government can do.

Several statements in the response do not seem to relate to anything in Maren and Jude’s paper. For instance, on page 4 Scott states “The ideas that an untrained instructor can ascertain their learners needs without assessing them, or can know that they did the job they promised the learners and funders they would do, is a fantasy.” I could find no reference to practitioners, trained or untrained, in the original paper.

I would argue against the statement made on page 6 that “To make matters worse, many of the literacy training providers went to great lengths to resist sharing the benefits of publicly funded developments with others.” The existence of NALD/COPIAN, AlphaPlus, the Centre for Literacy Summer Institutes speak to the ways in which the literacy organizations did share.

Finally I totally disagree with the statement on page 8 “The final straw came when analysis revealed that the provincial and territorial literacy organizations were spending virtually all of their federal funding on overhead rather in helping low skilled adults gain skill.”

Provincial and territorial organizations were getting operational funding from the federal government, the point of which was to fund overhead. None of these organizations was in the business of directly teaching literacy to learners. The federal government decided that it no longer wanted to provide operational funding. It may have thought the money should have been spent of delivery; however that was not what the organizations were being funded to do. I know of no direct plea to have these provincial/territorial organizations cooperate across jurisdictions although there were efforts to do this with the national organizations.

Although I’ve taken issue with the tone and quite a few of the points made, I agreed to share Scott’s paper with you. It is important for us to understand different points of view if we are ever to create a robust adult literacy, education and training policy and program regime in this country.

I look forward to reading your comments on both papers – respectful dialogue is always welcome here.

Posted in Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Policy, Employment and Social Development Canada, ESDC, Essential Skills, Federal Government and Literacy, Literacy and Essential Skills, National Literacy Secretariat (NLS), Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES), PIAAC, Provincial/Territorial Governments and Literacy | Leave a comment

The Rise and Fall of Adult Literacy in Canada

I’d like to share with you an excellent paper written by Maren Elfert and Jude Walker entitled The Rise and Fall of Adult Literacy: Policy Lessons from Canada.

The paper traces the rise of literacy as a policy issue in this country beginning in the 1970s and its collapse in the mid 2000s. The authors have done a great job of documenting what happened over the years, shedding light on why literacy never moved from the margins to the mainstream.

The paper echos many of my own thoughts on the subject and I’m thankful that Maren and Jude were able to write it. It clarifies how literacy morphed into a single story leaving the country without a national strategy or infrastructure.  Many lessons to be learned.


Posted in ABC Canada, Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Policy, Employment and Social Development Canada, ESDC, Essential Skills, Family Literacy, Federal Government and Literacy, Frontier College, International Literacy Surveys, Literacy and Essential Skills, National Literacy Secretariat (NLS), Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (OLES), Official Language Minority Communities, PIAAC, RESDAC | 4 Comments