July 30, 2008

Low literacy a stubborn problem

As published in The Erin Advocate

The news was discouraging to folks who write for a living.

A report last month from the Canadian Council on Learning says that 48 per cent of Canadian adults have low literacy skills. That does not mean they are illiterate (cannot read or write), but that their abilities fall below internationally-accepted standards for coping in a modern society.

The study, Reading the Future, contradicts the idea that literacy is improving in Canada. As the population grows, the proportion of people in the low literacy categories is expected remain the same, with the total rising from 12 million to 15 million by 2031.

This is in spite of the serious efforts of parents and teachers to instill a love of reading and writing in young people. While these efforts are worthwhile, they are only partially successful.

The low literacy group spans all age groups, English and French speakers, immigrants and those born in Canada, and includes some with high school diplomas and post-secondary education. Most are employed, have a strong dislike of computers and believe their skills are “adequate” for their work. Most are relatively close to meeting the international standard.

At the lowest level, a person may, for example, be unable to determine from a package label the correct amount of medicine to give a child. Those at the next level are literate enough to get by from day to day, but their poor literacy makes it hard to conquer challenges such as learning new job skills.

“Millions of our fellow citizens may learn to read, but they cannot read to learn,” said Dr. Paul Cappon, President of the Canadian Council on Learning. Adult literacy levels have been shown to have a profound influence on the growth or decline of a country’s economy, according to the report.

"The Canadian economy will suffer as the number of Canadians with low literacy skills increases, so we need to prepare workers for shifts in their industry and new technologies," said Margaret Eaton, president of the private-sector ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation.

“The issue of literacy in Canada cannot be solved by any one group,” said Dr. Cappon. “Achieving success will require concerted effort from all levels of government, educators, employers, workers, community groups, families and individuals.”

Reading tends to be a quiet, inexpensive activity. Flashy entertainment on television / internet and a whirlwind of activities outside the home don’t foster a reading environment.

“In our busy world, it is hard for people to sit down and read a book,” said Beverley Picken, Supervisor of the Erin branch of the Wellington County Library. “It is important for children to see their parents reading.”

The library runs programs like the Summer Reading Club for children, using posters, stickers, activity books and prizes to make reading more fun. In the Summer Reading Challenge, teens can get a ballot for every book they read, in hopes of winning an iPod. Adults can read from a list of 10 nominated books and vote to choose the winner in the Evergreen Reading Award Programme. Check www.wclib for more library information.

Word literacy is not an end in itself. It is about having the skill and confidence to be a communicator, which can include physical touch, speech, spirituality, music, theatre, visual arts, academic learning and athletics. The school system is dedicated to helping kids reach their potential as well-rounded citizens, but the process starts at birth.

“Early infant reading develops an attitude towards books and print that is vitally important for reading later on,” says Paul Kropp, in his book How to Make your Child a Reader for Life (available at the Erin library).

“We encourage parents to read to their children right from birth,” said Marlene MacNevin, Children’s Services Manager at EWAG (East Wellington Advisory Group) in Erin.

“Each time they help their child connect books to their own experiences – their toys, friends and activities – they are introducing them to literacy by allowing their children to use their imagination.”

EWAG runs provincially-funded “Ontario Early Years” programs in Erin and Rockwood for children up to six years old. Activities include crafts, songs, finger plays, games and stories. Call 519-833-9696 for details.

At the other end of the spectrum are the program offered by agencies like the Wellington County Learning Centre (see www.thewclc.ca) for adults who want to improve their skills. But that is a topic for another day.

As a society, we are right to set high goals for literacy. People should not, however, pass negative judgment on those with lower (or higher) skills than their own. No one should be afraid to expand his or her horizons.

The important thing is to provide opportunities for everyone to improve, at every age. It is a basic democratic right.

July 23, 2008

A View from the Top

As published in The Erin Advocate

Lilly and I enjoy hiking to a place where you can see Erin village in all its splendour.
Have you been up the Water Tower Hill lately? Have you ever?

You don’t have to be a mountaineer to make the climb. Anyone in good physical condition can get to the summit with minimal huffing and puffing.

It’s well worth the effort, providing a break from the everyday ground-level views of the town. The panorama is spectacular, especially if you take the time to observe the details of what lies before you.

There’s a steep path near the end of William Street, but the easiest route is the gravel road to the water tower, accessed via March Street, just across from the Coffee Time parking lot on Main Street. If you look in the long grass at the base, you’ll see a long-forgotten, fallen-down sign that reads “Erin Girl Guides of Canada”.

This start of the Height of Land Trail is not very scenic. On a recent walk I noticed an old couch, a folding chair, a raincoat, a farm gate, pieces of kid’s wagon and a Halloween mask that had been discarded there. But take heart – the trail further up is quite clean.

The landmark water tower is quite imposing when you get up to its base. From this spot, there’s still not much of a view, due to the tall trees, but as you take the trail north, the vista opens up.

It’s the green that really hits you – looking down on hundreds of thousands of trees, in so many textures and shades of green. It is positively Irish.

Looking towards Guelph, you see farm fields, silos and woodlands, with the shadows of clouds scudding across the scenery. There are the back yards of new homes with their trampolines and play centres.

East across the village, many streets are not visible due to the foliage, but there are the churches raising their steeples towards heaven. Other landmarks stand out, such as the red and green Leitch Fuels barn, and the 158-year-old Erin Grist Mill building nearby.

Farther north are the fair grounds and the open water areas created by the damming of the West Credit River. Out beyond the village, the two gravel pit areas are small enough that they do not ruin the rolling landscape view.

Continuing north, there is a path down to Charles Street, then some steep climbs. When you come to the highest point of the ridge, you look down on surprisingly flat fields to the west, then some even higher hills to the north-west. If you look back south, you’ll see that you are at eye level with the top of the water tower.

From this point you can descend through a long, sloping meadow, and come back into the village on Church Street. If you walk further, past the village landfill site that was closed a few years ago, you’ll see golden fields in the distance, contrasted with trees on their borders, as you look towards Hillsburgh.

Lilly doesn’t care much for the view, as far as I know. She prefers chasing dragonflies and sniffing in the bushes, as hound dogs are wont to do.

The sounds of wind and chirping birds in the trees is constant, with occasional hawks and red-winged blackbirds swooping by.

The wide array of wildflowers would alone make the trek worthwhile. There are patches of clover, punctuated with Tiger Lillies and Queen Ann’s Lace. It looks like there will be a healthy crop of wild raspberries this year.

The most striking floral expanses are created by a profusion of bright, yellow Bird’s-Foot Trefoil, and a scattering of Bird Vetch, a flower with small purple petals that hang on one side of the stem.

So get out and enjoy your trail – it provides a fresh perspective on the town.

It could even become a tourist attraction.

July 16, 2008

Tourism turmoil an opportunity for Erin

As published in The Erin Advocate

The high cost of travel could bring more visitors to Erin, as people look for economical ways to take a break from city living.

We've always attracted tourists seeking a rural community atmosphere, but more can be expected as high gas prices make people think twice about driving to more distant Ontario locations such as Muskoka.

Lisa Brusse, Executive Director of the Hills of Headwaters Tourism Association, has done an informal survey of tourist-related businesses in the district, which includes Erin, Orangeville, Caledon, Dufferin, Shelburne and Mono.

“We’re hearing that things are quite strong, with more day-trippers than weekend visitors,” she said. “There has been no decrease due to gas prices.”

With airlines and Via Rail adding fuel surcharges, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada predicts consumers will travel more strategically, with vacations taken closer to home.

Some destinations, such as the Forks of the Credit, already have a fairly high profile. The tourism association gets visitors to explore further by providing maps, profiling local shops, restaurants, natural attractions and accommodations, and developing customized tours through its website: www.thehillsofheadwaters.com. Promotional material is distributed through outlets like The Toronto Star.

"Erin village and Hillsburgh are very good pulls," said Cynthia Percival, Tourism & Membership Services Coordinator for Headwaters. ''There are many well-established businesses, but they can't afford major marketing on their own."

Once day-trippers get to Erin, some end up talking to Lindsay McCaslin. She is staffing the Visitor Information Kiosk on Main Street (across from the ValuMart parking lot), which is operated by Headwaters, in partnership with the Town of Erin and the Erin Economic Development Committee.

''There are lots of Toronto people," she said. "They want to know about places to eat or nice shops, and there are many requests for trail maps."

She said there are also a good number of Erin people dropping in to find out about local events.

High gas prices also give us another good reason to shop, dine and have fun locally. We can save money and boost the Erin economy at the same time. When we get out of our cars to stroll downtown, we stand a better chance of seeing familiar faces and learning more about the community.

Some visitors plan to hike or cycle here, and not spend much money, but making them feel welcome is important for boosting our image.

“Many people want to go and experience things that are free,” said Percival.

A prime example is the Bruce Trail, which can be accessed nearby in Belfountain and Halton Hills. It enables hikers to enjoy the Niagara Escarpment, which is designated by the United Nations as a World Biosphere Reserve.

The pattern for tourist traffic to the Headwaters area is mainly north-south, rather than east-west, with Hwy. 10 being the primary route north, said Percival.

Unfortunately, on that highway, there are no signs pointing the way to Erin. There are directional signs for Inglewood and Belfountain, and promotional signs for various Caledon businesses and Forks of the Credit Provincial Park.

Soon there will be more traffic on that route, since Hwy. 410 is being extended to bypass Brampton and join Hwy. 10.

As northbound drivers approach Caledon village, they'll see a sign pointing them north to Owen Sound, or west on Charleston Sideroad (124) towards Guelph. It would be better if they could also learn that north leads to Orangeville and west leads to Erin.

I don't know how much difference it would make, but it would certainly make the town's location known to more people. It's hard to be a destination when they don't know where you are.

Now might be an opportune time to have such a sign erected, since road construction is taking place in Caledon village and the existing sign is in poor condition.

The Town of Erin can send a request for such a sign to the Area Traffic Manager at the Ministry of Transportation in Downsview. They'll determine if it qualifies under their sign policy.

But sign or no sign, and regardless of the price of gas, Erin seems to be getting lots of visitors.

As they cruise the countryside looking for ways to spend their disposable income, let’s be extra friendly to them.

July 09, 2008

Navigation red tape delays bridge repairs

As published in The Erin Advocate

When I heard that the mighty West Credit River is “navigable”, I was tempted to get out the canoe and give it a try.

One look at the river as it passes by downtown Erin convinced me not to bother. I’d have to drag it over the shallow, rocky areas, and maybe chainsaw my way through the fallen tree branches. Navigation of this section of the river is best left to smaller members of the animal kingdom.

Unfortunately, this navigable status may lead to a delay in rehabilitating the Mill Street bridge and adding a pedestrian bridge beside it. The Town of Erin was planning to do the work this summer.

The pre-fabricated pedestrian bridge, which would solve a serious safety issue, is ready to install.

But because the river is classified as navigable, federal approval is required to do the rehabilitation work on the main bridge, including replacement of the rusty, broken railings. Getting the approval could take more than two months, said Roads Superintendent Larry Van Wyck.

That is a problem, because regulations prohibit bridge work outside the summer months.
“I’m not overly optimistic about it happening this year,” said Mayor Rod Finnie. “Patience is a virtue. It will happen, but it may take longer than expected.”

“I’m disappointed in the delay,” said Viviana Keir, who along with other parents lobbied for years to get improvements on Mill Street. A sidewalk is now in place, which benefits children walking to or from the nearby St. John Brebeuf School. But when pedestrians come to the bridge, they must step onto the road. Water drainage on the road surface of the bridge is also a problem.

“I’d love to know what navigable means, since you can barely get your feet wet,” she said.

Under the Navigable Waters Protection Act, it means “any body of water capable of being navigated by any type of floating vessel for the purpose of transportation, recreation or commerce”, according to the Transport Canada web site.

Nicole Khalvati is an engineer with McCormick Rankin Corporation of Mississauga, which has submitted an application to Transport Canada on behalf of the Town of Erin to get approval for this project. She said they were surprised when they learned the river is considered navigable.

“We provided information on the depth, and asked for reconsideration, but we were told no.”

According to a legal notice published in last week’s Advocate, residents can now submit comments “regarding the effect of this work on marine navigation”. Send your letters to: Superintendent, Navigable Waters Protection Program, Transport Canada, 100 Front Street South, Sarnia, Ontario N7T 2M4.

The river flows south on the west side of downtown, cuts east under Main Street, and then north under Mill Street. It should be noted that the main bridge is safe for vehicle traffic. Also, special approval is not needed for erecting the pedestrian bridge, only for repairing the main one, said Van Wyck. For efficiency, the Town’s intention is to do both at the same time.

If the approval cannot be obtained this summer, the Town should investigate the possibility of installing the pedestrian bridge now, and doing the other work next year. This will increase the cost, but it would be useful to know by how much. Town council could then decide whether the added cost is reasonable.

These improvements have been needed for a long time. To be this close, only to have them delayed another year, will leave many residents shaking their heads in disbelief.

July 02, 2008

Moonlighting for gas money

As published in The Erin Advocate

With the price of gas these days, it’s costing me $320 a month at the gas pumps just to get to work and back, a 100-kilometre round trip five days a week to the middle of Mississauga.

So I started thinking of ways to make my money go further, or make a bit more of it. I’ve got a decent job, but we haven’t had a raise in years.

A small job on the side would ease the pain of filling my gas tank. It would have to be something flexible, not too hard, close to home and preferably interesting. But where would I find a job like that?

Then I picked up the Erin Advocate and saw that Harry Smith had written his farewell column. I’ve been out of the newspaper business for 17 years, but I’ve always thought I might return somehow, so I called Joan Murray to see if she was looking for a new columnist.

She liked the idea, but said she wouldn’t be able to pay me much. I said that was perfect. Now all I have to do is figure out what to say.

What’s on my mind is energy prices, and in particular the carbon tax plan just announced by the federal Liberals. They call it the “Green Shift”.

If elected, they would increase taxes on energy producers, who would pass the cost on to the public, who would theoretically then use less energy. We’d be doing our bit to save the planet from greenhouse gases, and be rewarded with lower income taxes and other rebates. It’s a watered-down version of Green Party policy.

People in Erin, especially those who commute to work, have good reason to be wary of this plan, which is partly designed to get people to use public transit.

How many Erin residents would move to a city or change jobs, just to avoid using their cars? Some may buy more fuel-efficient cars, but many would simply absorb the cost.

We’ll still need to heat our homes with more expensive fuel, and buy products that have been transported with more expensive fuel. A 1-2 per cent reduction in our income taxes may not feel like adequate compensation.

For the government books, the plan will be “revenue neutral”, supposedly guaranteed by law. That doesn’t means neutral for everyone – some will gain and some will be worse off. The GST was supposed to be “revenue neutral” too, but it wasn’t.

The plan includes a Green Rural Credit of $150 for “rural” Canadians. Per year. It’s not clear whether this includes people in small towns, but in any case it’s a small amount compared to the massive surge of price pressure that a carbon tax would produce throughout the economy.

It would be much more than a tax – really a massive reform of the tax system, loaded with credits, hoping to offset the impact on businesses and lower-income Canadians.

It would be an attempt to change people’s behaviour – how they travel, where they live, what they consume and how they think about the world, by deliberately inflicting economic pain.

Global climate change is a serious problem, and maybe drastic measures are needed. But who is going to vote in favour of extra pain?

Do you have confidence in St├ęphane Dion to actually make it work? Do you think the Conservatives’ less drastic plan will actually do any good? It’s not a pretty picture.

Here’s my advice to Dion (though it may be too late). Get yourself elected with other more pleasant promises. Once in power, nail us with the “Green Shift”.

If that doesn’t work out, you’ll have to leave. And maybe, if a future government is forced to bring in a carbon tax, history will remember that you tried it first.