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Publication de la COFA

A Learning Community That Teaches by Example

by Denise Savoie

As a former adult-education officer at Capilano College, and at the University of British Columbia, and with the Government of Canada, I firmly believe that within ourselves and within our communities, we have the resources we need to learn throughout our lives so that we can meet our shared challenges. When I think of the challenges that my city of Victoria, B.C. faced during my terms as a member of its City Council, I am even more convinced of this power to learn, and that is what made me want to turn Victoria into a “learning community”. As Ron Faris has stated, in the learning-community model, people form partnerships to promote learning, thereby enabling themselves to grow both as individuals and as a community, while also promoting economic development. This model focuses primarily on the opportunities for lifelong learning, starting in early childhood, and provides a way to examine societal issues from a different perspective. If we wanted to make progress on the societal issues that citizens of Victoria cared about, then as members of a community, we had to learn together and work together.

In 2005, a small committee of which I was a member, composed of school board trustees, young people from an alternative school program, and community business and education leaders, drafted a proclamation that celebrated the City of Victoria’s values with regard to learning. Basically, this proclamation stated that Victoria has a strong social will to learn, grow, and harness the abilities of all its citizens; that it recognizes the wealth of its human resources; and that it is a place where people of all ages, with diverse experiences, backgrounds, cultures, talents, and knowledge, can contribute to and together create a city in which all of its citizens can thrive.1 We may have indulged in some grandiose language, but we also set some achievable objectives asDenise Savoie  a starting point for this effort.

In my work with young people, for example, I oversaw the creation of a youth council to enable youth to participate fully in the community’s decision-making processes and have a say in the matters that concerned them. This youth council is still active today, and it has even partnered with other community groups to carry out a wide range of projects, such as Justice Activism in Youth, a legal-literacy project in which members led interactive workshops to help students improve their relations with the police.

Our initiative alsoincluded the South Island Learning Community project,designed for First Nations youth. This project, supported by a very wide community network and funded by the former federal Office of Learning Technologies, offered young learners learning opportunities based on community service. This project also created a lifelong-learning culture within the project communities by helping every participant to develop a learning plan to build his or her essential skills and reduce his or her obstacles to employment.

The next project that grew out of Victoria’s learning-community initiative began when a group from the city’s Francophone community asked me to help them start up a community radio station. I saw this as an other way to strengthen this community’s cultural resilience, in particular a community so geographically distant from its Francophone counterparts elsewhere. A major effort on the part of this community ensued, led by a few members of the Société francophone de Victoria who believed, as I did, in the need for such resources to protect a minority community’s cultural identity. This effort proved a success: the first station, the Société radio communautaire Victoria, went on the air and continues to promote and celebrate French-Canadian culture at 107.9 MHz on the FM band.

But despite these successes and numerous other achievements, some elements of our envisioned learning community have yet to be turned into realities. One such element is a new centralized public library that would not only distribute books but also serve as a social and cultural learning centre. In this regard, the municipal library of Charlesbourg, a borough of Quebec City, has inspired me and might inspire others. When that borough renovated this library, it added an exhibition hall, a children’s space, an auditorium, and several conference rooms and classrooms. Victoria could undertake a similar initiative by including a dedicated space for art exhibits, a small performance space, a room for historical archives, and even a literary café. Such a library could become the central pillar for an entire learning neighbourhood within the city. But to achieve this goal, some effort will be essential.

Today, as a politician representing Victoria on the federal scene, I believe even more firmly in lifelong learning. The connections between low levels of literacy and socio-economic inequalities are as plain as day. The Scandinavian countries, where adults are far more educated, have lower rates of poverty, fewer homicides, a lower incidence of drug addiction, and lower infant mortality rates. In Ottawa, I have therefore made it my mission to get my colleagues to recognize the importance of developing a national literacy and learning strategy.

This initiative would require the creation of a Canadian literacy agency that would work with the provinces and with community partners and would provide funding to help achieve national literacy objectives. I have asked questions in Parliament, I have met with Canadians from coast to coast who are concerned about this problem, I have written to the minister on several occasions, and I have seen to it that this initiative was included in a national all-party study on employability. In 2008, the leader of the New Democratic Party, Jack Layton, included in our party’s platform my recommendations to offer a “literacy opportunity guarantee”, or, in other words, to guarantee every Canadian the right to learn, as part of our commitment to the goal of a fully literate Canada.

I believe that Canada’s future depends on a sustainable, long-term investment in learning. Tax cuts have become many politicians’ rallying cry, but such cuts will not help to reduce the prosperity gaps that divide us in this country, nor enable us to invest in the kind of learning that will make Canada a fairer country for all. I know that investing public funds in this area produces results, because I have seen it with my own eyes, just as the participants in Victoria’s Justice Activism in Youth, South Island Learning Community, and Francophone community radio projects have experienced it in their own lives. Seen from this perspective, a learning community is no longer just an abstract model, but instead becomes a practical and potentially powerful organizing principle that can continue to help us make the most of Victoria’s assets. And I believe that Victoria, as a learning community, can preserve the quality of life of all its citizens, meet the challenges that affect them, and serve as an example to other communities elsewhere in Canada.

1 From the proclamation Victoria, BC – A Global Learning City