The spring 2018 issue of Maisonneuve magazine includes my story called “Letters from Pop.” In this reported feature, I explore a legacy of low adult literacy in my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL). There, people traditionally learned their skills on the land and the sea more so than in the formal classroom. For that and a whole host of other reasons I share in my article, NL continues to perform below the Canadian average on adult literacy. That is, at least in the traditional sense of the term, where literacy is taken to mean reading, writing and numeracy.

But literacy is complex and so too are the approaches to developing literacy skills. Over the past couple of years, the NL government has taken steps that are antithetical to improving the population’s literacy. Proposed library closures and the implementation of a (now retracted) book tax are two of the measures I discuss at length in my feature.

The NL government announced in 2016 its decision to close half of its provincial libraries. But that decision was quickly stayed, and the library’s budget was restored for the following fiscal. This pause allowed time for an independent review of the library system. That review is now complete, but decisions have yet to be taken on what will happen next.

Also, in 2016, the government announced it would implement a new “book tax.” The new tax was implemented January 1 – December 31, 2017. In August of 2017, the finance minister announced the government was lifting the tax as of January 1, 2018.

Public Outcry Over Proposed Library Closures

In May 2017, the Provincial Information and Library Resources Board released the Organizational and Service Review of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Library System. Andrew Hunt is the Executive Director of the Board. In an email exchange with me, he shared the following: “The Board is currently developing a future state plan for the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Library System. The recommendations within the report will assist the Board in developing this future state plan. Once it is developed, it is anticipated that the implementation of the future state plan will be a multi-year undertaking.”

While no one from the Board has confirmed this fact, the province is likely return to its original decision – closing multiple libraries in favour of a more regionalized model. The report points to numerous operational issues that make the current model unsustainable. Unlike library systems elsewhere in Canada where municipalities largely fund local libraries, the funding of the NL model is weighted toward the provincial purse. The report also points to the number of libraries across the province – NL has more libraries per capita than any other province with the exception of Saskatchewan. Libraries in NL also serve fewer citizens per library than libraries elsewhere – serving just over half of the average population served in provinces like Alberta and Ontario as well as neighbouring provinces like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. One-quarter of NL libraries also serve one thousand or fewer people and half of those serve populations of five hundred or fewer.

The analysis is compelling, but so too are the impassioned comments from citizens who attended each of the eleven public consultations carried out across the province in October-November 2016. The comments show many participants feel the fate of the province’s libraries were decided before the consultations began. It’s a legitimate concern given the closures were originally announced in Budget 2016 without advanced public consultation. The comments also express overwhelm and worry about what these potential closures could mean, particularly for those living in the province’s rural and remote communities.

“Cutting libraries is like asking which part of your body you’d like to remove,” said one Springdale participant.

“Some people are marginalized; they don’t have a lot of places to go or socialize. It’s free and they don’t have to buy a coffee or spend two dollars. I think we underestimate the value of the librarian being a listening ear to the people who have nowhere to go and no one to talk to,” said a Twillingate participant.

“The importance of libraries to communities and the services they offer cannot be reduced to numbers,” said a Labrador City participant. “Research shows communities that have libraries have a higher literacy rate.”

And a Grand Falls-Winsor participant said: “How are we going to have lifelong learning if we don’t have libraries for people to visit? I look at my library as a classroom. Every library is a classroom. It’s where people come to learn. If this is not available in rural communities, what’s going to happen to the young and old people in those communities? What kind of message are we sending to people if we close the libraries?”

When the closures were announced, the Writers’ Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador (WANL) cautioned government in their news release – the decision to close libraries would harm communities, the people they serve and the province at large.

“A blow to libraries is a blow to literacy, and a blow to literacy is a blow to economic development,” says Denise Flint, president of WANL, quoted in the release, but who I also reached by email.

“Studies have shown that a one per cent increase in average literacy scores can result in a permanent 1.5 per cent increase in GDP per capita,” reads the 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.”

Taxing Books Sends Wrong Message. They are not Luxury Items; They are Essential to Education

“As part of Budget 2016, the Provincial Government temporarily eliminated the book rebate in January 2017,” writes a spokesperson from the NL Department of Finance in an email exchange (email correspondence with Marc Budgell, November 28, 2017). That means, those buying books were charged an additional ten per cent provincial HST for a total of fifteen per cent HST on every book bought in the province, be it from a bricks and mortar bookstore or online retailer. Schools, universities and other public-sector organizations were exempt from paying the tax, but not the individuals such as students who attend these institutions.

Gavin Will is owner of Boulder Publications in Portugal Cove-St. Philip’s. About the book tax, Will says, “It was completely short-sighted and illustrates the attitude of this particular government towards books and a role of literature or literacy in Newfoundland and Labrador, which is amongst the lowest in Canada.”

When I talked to Will in November 2017, he believed the tax did have a detrimental effect on book sales last year.

“Some people did tell me they weren’t buying as many books,” says Will. “If they even went out to purchase books, they wouldn’t buy as many as they had planned because this was going to cost ten per cent more than it had the previous year. It’s hard to measure exactly as per the cause and effect because the book tax came into effect about the same time we’re concerned with a decline of the Newfoundland and Labrador economy. So, it’s hard to know and you can’t draw a direct line, but I do know that our sales are down and I believe the tax plays a role in that.”

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 placed a competitive disadvantage on independent shops like his. Howse opened shop in late spring 2014 and noticed a climb in sales up to and including winter 2016. Then, things changed.

“When that budget got tabled, some crazy thing happened in the city,” says Howse. “It wasn’t just me. It was a lot of the retailers downtown. We noticed a big drop in sales. And we’ve never quite recovered from that. I’ve been working two other jobs since 2016 and I feel like it took the wind out of everybody’s sails. Tax them this, tax them that, light bills going up, people moving away, jobs getting slashed from the public service. It just took the wind out of everybody’s sails to the point that they weren’t spending the same way.”

Examining the tax with greater scrutiny, Howse checked out how online retailers were enforcing the new tax. As it happens, many were not, so Howse says he notified the provincial government, who reportedly issued a noncompliance complaint to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Within days, Indigo, the parent company of Chapters, reportedly issued a statement.

“We are in the process of making the necessary corrections to our systems. Of course, we will also ensure the tax is accounted for and remitted fully as required by law,” wrote Janet Eger, vice president of public affairs for Indigo.

Howse says he continued to find examples of noncompliance from online retailers, so continued to notify the province. When the province indicated it was a Canada Revenue Agency  issue, it showed the provincial government was not equipped to carry through on its own policy he says.

Governments in Nova Scotia (NS) and Prince Edward Island considered similar taxes on books in recent years but abandoned the idea. In Nova Scotia, the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association took a firm stance against the tax.

“Not only will this be detrimental to booksellers and publishers in our province, but the higher cost of books will impact readers, students and low income families most of all,” states a February 2015 news release from the association.

In the letter accompanying the release to NS’s Minister of Education and Minister of Communities, Culture and Heritage, the alliance’s executive director, Carolyn Guy states: “Our publishers do not believe that books are luxury items. Like food and children’s clothing, they are essential and key to the education, wellbeing and welfare of citizens. They are the vehicles of knowledge, information and self-determination.”

Taking Action to Improve Adult Literacy

In 2009, the Council of Atlantic Ministers of Education and Training (CAMET) announced a regional action plan to improve literacy skills in Atlantic Canada. The plan covers literacy for early learners, school-aged children and youth, adults, communities, Indigenous and newcomer populations. For its part, the government of NL cites a range of programming for each of these populations.  For adult learners, the report cites a provincial “Strategic Adult Literacy Plan,” developed in 2008. When asked about current actions for adult learners, the province says now, nearly ten years later, a new strategy is needed.

A spokesperson for the NL Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour writes (by email), “Government recognizes that the population of Newfoundland and Labrador is aging. Therefore, we are striving to become even more effective and efficient in the training services we provide to adult learners. The Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour will develop and implement an Adult Literacy Strategy that will guide investments in literacy among adults in the province. This strategy will be developed with consultation and it will draw upon best practices for public and private collaboration. We expect to begin consultations in Winter 2018.”

It’s unclear what exactly has amounted from the CAMET regional action plan. There’s also no word yet on the proposed consultations.

I’ll continue to follow this story. For more, please read my full feature story. Also, I’d encourage you to check out this excellent blog by Brigid Hayes about adult literacy in Canada

My Pop, Reginald Thornhill
My Pop, Reginald Thornhill – read more about his personal connection to adult literacy in the Maisonneuve feature article

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