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Caroline Elliott: It’s true: Gatekeepers are keeping Canada dead last

Commentary

Pierre Poilievre is right: Canada has a gatekeeper problem and it needs to be fixed. Chart #28 in the federal budget illustrates why.A Plan to Grow Our Economy and Make Life More Affordable It shows predicted real GDP growth per capita over the next four decades, with Canada ranking dead last amongst its peers—38th of 38 countries, straight through until 2060, according to the OECD report on which that chart is based.The Long Game: Fiscal Outlooks to 2060 Underline Need for Structural Reform

The Business Council of BC explains that young Canadians used to be able to look forward to growing real incomes over their working lives, but that’s no longer the case. If the OECD is right, Canadians can instead expect “a long period of stagnating average real incomes,” with a declining standard of living relative to other advanced economies.

When it comes to much-needed investment in the natural resource sector, the federal government’s preference for gatekeeping over growth is part of the problem. It’s worth looking at a few examples to bring the issue to life.  

Regulatory processes have only gotten more burdensome since B.C.’s Site C hydroelectric project received environmental certification. Approved in the final year of the Harper government, the process was no picnic even back then.     

The environmental assessment required a 15,000-page Environmental Impact Statement, stuffed into 27 binders measuring 17 feet long when lined up on a bookshelf. Within those pages was excruciatingly detailed documentation of everything from the expected—fish, birds, wildlife, air quality—to the less expected—”visual resources”, ancient “subsistence procurement sites”, “lithic scatters” (not stone tools themselves, but the tiny flakes of rock knocked off during the tool-making process).

Having withstood more than a dozen court challenges (adding even more costs and uncertainty), Site C has prevailed at least partly because it’s a public, ratepayer-funded project that is crucial to meeting climate targets. 

Now imagine how prospects look for private investment in the much-maligned oil and gas or forestry sectors.

Demand for liquefied natural gas is growing and is expected to almost double by 2040.“Overall, global LNG demand is expected to cross 700 million tonnes a year by 2040, a 90%
increase on 2021 demand. Asia is expected to consume the majority of this growth as domestic
gas production declines, regional economies grow and LNG replaces higher-emissions energy
sources, helping to tackle concerns over air quality and to help progress towards carbon emissions
targets.” https://www.shell.com/promos/energy-and-innovation/v1/lng-outlook-2022-media-release/_jcr_content.stream/1645193450373/184c9dd6d1f5348175c22ad38117dbcc95937f9a/shell-lng-outlook-2022-media-release.pdf
At the same time, democratic countries are looking to reduce their reliance on Russian natural gas. LNG is also a means of combatting climate change, significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by displacing coal-fired generation overseas.Liquefied natural gas exports from Canada to China: An analysis of internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMO)

It is telling that, despite this context, oil and gas get no more than a few brief mentions in the budget, usually in the context of curbing emissions or transitioning away from the sector.

The government’s attitude helps explain why, when it comes to growing our exports, only LNG Canada and the Coastal GasLink pipeline that will supply it are under construction. The Pacific NorthWest LNG project was shelved after spending over three-and-a-half years in the process. In contrast, the Sabine Pass LNG project in Louisiana was approved in just over a year.

The Coastal GasLink project did all the right things. It began consulting with Indigenous groups a decade ago and achieved agreements with all 20 elected councils of the First Nations along the project route, many of whom see it as a way to lift their members out of poverty.

Yet the B.C. and federal governments have seriously undermined this work by working instead with disputed hereditary chiefs who have repeatedly blockaded the project while excluding elected leaders from the table. Progress on the project has been frequently and even violently interrupted, costing the company millions.  

It’s the same story when it comes to forestry. The industry cites greater regulatory complexity and uncertainty as major challenges, and even B.C.-based forestry companies are investing their dollars elsewhere, to the tune of $10 billion in 2021 alone.

It was laughable to see the budget mention “lengthy regulatory processes” as one among a “unique set of challenges” facing Canada’s critical minerals industry. The fact is, the government has done nothing but add to the burden faced by the natural resource sector.

Since Site C’s approval, we’ve seen innovations like “Gender-based Analysis Plus”Gender-based Analysis Plus in Impact Assessment (Interim Guidance) added to the impact assessment mix, guiding proponents to assess the “historical and current power structures that have shaped society and created inequalities” when simply trying to get their products out of the ground.

In 2018, a new federal Impact Assessment Act was implemented, which, in addition to expanding the list of impacts to be considered, tacks on a 180-day ‘planning process’ and adds multiple stop-the-clock opportunities along the way. It also increases the likelihood of referral to the onerous review panel process.

On top of this, the government has enshrined into law the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, article 32(2) of which requires that states must work with Indigenous people to obtain “free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories.” The real-world implications of this, and UNDRIP as a whole, are poorly understood and increase uncertainty. 

It is hard to see how a future project like Site C, which obtained agreements with most, but not all, Indigenous groups in the area, could possibly be allowed to proceed. It is not even clear how projects like Coastal GasLink, which did achieve agreements with all elected councils, but not hereditary chiefs, would fare under this new framework.

So yes, Pierre Poilievre is right. When it comes to natural resources, governments at all levels seem more interested in adding gatekeepers than they are in facilitating growth. We need a course correction, and fast, if we are to have any reason for optimism about Canada’s economic future.

Paul W. Bennett: Ontario’s approach to early reading is failing its students

Commentary

Several months ago, the earth shook in Ontario and sent reverberations across the Canadian system of education. The Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that children had “the right to read” and were being denied it in that province’s schools. Most “learning disabilities” labels were actually the result of reading failures, the latest OHRC inquiry found. And most tellingly, students from disadvantaged communities were the most likely to bear the brunt of ineffective reading instruction in elementary schools. 

Thousands of Ontario parents with children struggling to read have now broken the silence. Over the past two years, they came forward, sometimes with their kids, to provide heart-wrenching personal testimonies about how current early reading programs have failed them. On February 28, 2022, that Commission,OHRC Right to Read inquiry calls for critical changes to Ontario’s approach to early reading headed by Chief Commissioner Patricia DeGuire and backed by the latest evidence-based research, simply demolished prevailing methodologies and programs which have left far too many kids unable to read to a level of functional literacy.    

An estimated nine out of ten children are capable of learning to read when provided with the proper instruction. That factoid, generated by International Dyslexia Association (IDA Ontario) research, was confirmed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The fundamental problem is that one-third of our youngest students, the vast majority enrolled in so-called “balanced literacy” programs, simply cannot read with the fluency needed in today’s world.  

Starting in October 2019, the Right to Read inquiry looked at a representative cross-section of eight English language school boards, including Peel District School Board and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and all 13 English-language faculties of education and Ministry of Education sanctioned curriculum. In addition to listening to a multitude of concerned parents,Why some parents are eager for changes to Ontario’s early reading curriculum the inquiry tapped into the research expertise of leading learning disabilities researchers, including Linda Seigel of the University of British Columbia and Jamie Metsala of Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University.

While Chief Commissioner DeGuire refrained from pointing fingers, it was clear that current early reading methods were not working and the commission got a “mixed response” from education faculties regarding the findings. That’s no surprise because most faculties provide little if any preparation informed by the science of reading and model curricula based upon the “balanced literacy” dogma peddled by the dominant learning resource providers. 

When one-out-of-three students graduate without reaching provincial or international standards, someone, somewhere, has to assume responsibility for the outcomes. Vulnerable students—those from impoverished and marginalized communities—were already struggling before the two-year-long pandemic school disruptions. OHRC’s legal counsel Reema Kawaja said it best: “No child should go to school for 14 years and not learn to read.” 

Current reading instruction methods are deeply entrenched and their defenders have succeeded, for three decades, in sinking periodic assaults on that hegemony. Generations of elementary teachers have stayed the course, rebranding “whole language,” applying the reading recovery band-aid, and fuzzing up the whole question with “balanced literacy” providing continued cover for those same methods.  

This transition has been facilitated and enabled by Canada’s faculties of education where teachers are introduced to literacy programs and inculcated in provincially-sanctioned texts and learning materials, exemplified by Fountas & Pinnell, North America’s largest purveyor of “balanced literacy” learning resources, teacher training, and classroom assessment tools. 

New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy was one of the first off-the-mark in reacting to the Right To Read findings. With news of the earth-shaking February 28 Ontario report breaking, he took to Twitter with another impossible-to-ignore and quotable declaration heard across the K-12 education world.   

“Our approach to reading instruction was a disgrace,” Cardy tweeted. “We gave teachers a job and didn’t give them the tools to do it. For me, this is the biggest education scandal of the last fifty years.” Just in case you thought Minister Cardy was simply blowing off steam, he repeated his claim for Brunswick News in much greater detail.

Minister Cardy and his Department were one of the first to wade into the latest iteration of the reading wars.  “It’s crazy,” he told Brunswick News. “[There are] two camps. One is based upon reality, and one is not. And for a long time, we followed the one that is not based upon reality.”  Like the thousands of Ontario parents, Cardy challenges the prevailing theory that “if you surround [children] with lots of books, they will learn how to read.”

The Right to Read inquiry report may well tip the balance and, it should be noted, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce was quick to endorse the reportOntario to revamp approach to literacy in schools after report calls for change and its 157 recommendations for change The most critical of those is Recommendation 30 which fully embraces systematic reading strategies, including phonics, and rejects the still popular “three-cue” guess-the-word methodology.  

What is astounding is that the OHRC actually spelled out in detailhttps://www.ohrc.on.ca/en/right-to-read-inquiry-report/executive-summary the key requirements to successfully teach and support all students:

  1. Curriculum and instruction that reflects the scientific research on the best approaches to teach word reading. This includes explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonics, which teaches grapheme to phoneme (letter-sound) relationships and using these to decode and spell words, and word-reading accuracy and fluency. It is critical to adequately prepare and support teachers to deliver this instruction.
  2. Early screening of all students using common, standardized evidence-based screening assessments twice a year from kindergarten to Grade 2, to identify students at risk for reading difficulties for immediate, early, tiered interventions.
  3. Reading interventions that are early, evidence-based, fully implemented and closely monitored and available to ALL students who need them, and ongoing interventions for all readers with word reading difficulties.
  4. Accommodations (and modifications to curriculum expectations) should not be used as a substitute for teaching students to read. Accommodations should always be provided along with evidence-based curriculum and reading interventions. When students need accommodations (for example, assistive technology), they should be timely, consistent, effective and supported in the classroom.
  5. Professional [Psycho-educational] assessments, should be timely and based on clear, transparent, written criteria that focus on the student’s response to intervention. Criteria and requirements for professional assessments should account for the risk of bias for students who are culturally or linguistically diverse, racialized, who identify as First Nations, Métis or Inuit, or come from less economically privileged backgrounds. Professional assessments should never be required for interventions or accommodations.”

The OHRC inquiry report provides plenty of sound research and detailed policy guidance for Ontario, New Brunswick, and other provinces. By the end of next year, 2022-23, the New Brunswick version will be in place in Kindergarten to Grade 2. It’s already being implemented in a few Ontario pilot schools, including those in the York Region Catholic District School Board, north of Toronto, and the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board was the first to commit to acting on the OHRC recommendations.  

Tackling the problem will not be easy because prevailing “balanced literacy” approaches are deeply entrenched in most faculties of education. One of the first to cast a stone was Shelley Stagg Peterson, professor of literacy at OISE/University of Toronto, and, since then, Brock University professor Diane Collier, who represents a group of literacy researchers from nine different education faculties in Ontario. 

“Reading English is not phonetical; it is visual,” Stagg Peterson wrote in an Ottawa Citizen Letter to the Editor. “If a child has a good visual memory, he or she will be able to read anything they can understand by the end of grade one.”  Then came a couple of astounding statements: “Poor readers can have wonderful careers in many fields. Phonics is a useful tool in learning to read but it is not a method.”

Education faculty literacy professors have rallied in defence of the dominant pedagogy and mandated resources.  “There is no one-size-fits-all for reading,” Professor Collier told CBC News. “A highly systematized, step-by-step approach is not necessarily accessible for all students who have all kinds of needs, so it could further marginalize readers.” Their counter-strategy is clear—paint the Right To Read findings as an endorsement of “phonics” and attack it as advocating a “narrow” approach, sidestepping the findings and the ineffectiveness of current methods. 

The Ontario Right To Read inquiry report put existing literacy programs on notice but their defenders, ensconced in the education faculties, are not about to yield or give ground when learning resource alliances and training contracts are at stake. Reading reformers now know that it’s going to be a long siege and will require vigilance throughout the implementation process.