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For some, the ABCs are a matter of life and death

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper cut literacy funding three years ago, Rock Brisson would be dead by now.

If Prime Minister Stephen Harper cut literacy funding three years ago, Rock Brisson would be dead by now.

The 50-year-old renovator and painter owes his life to local literacy programs, which are now threatened by a $17 million federal budget cut announced by Harper last month.

“Mr. Harper could have just signed my death certificate,” said Brisson, Wednesday.

When he moved here in 2003 with his two teenage kids, Brisson was considering suicide.

Behind him was a failed marriage, a childhood riddled with abuse, years on the street battling addictions, a series of heart attacks and a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.

And there’s more.

On a work site, Brisson sniffed a bottle of liquid to figure out what it was — the substance was a potent toxin and it burned his stomach and lungs.

Brisson’s had stomach problems ever since.

He should have simply read the label.

But Brisson can’t read.

“At 50 years old, I should be independent,” he said.

But without the ability to read and write, it’s nearly impossible.

Brisson runs his own renovation and painting business.

But he can’t draft estimates.

In fact, he can’t even write receipts. He gets his customers to write up their own.

Serious learning disabilities have haunted him since he was a child growing up in Quebec.

When he was five, Brisson’s mother placed him in a Catholic orphanage where he was abused by the nuns and priests who taught him.

Continually locked in the closet or made to stand in the corner, the little boy lived in a lonely and confusing world.

“They thought I just didn’t want to learn,” he said.

“Forty years ago, they didn’t understand disabilities.

“Everything was like a different language to me. I didn’t understand what they were teaching me, so I was labelled ‘the bad kid.’”

The orphanage actually tried to get Brisson locked up in a mental institution and continued to feed him mysterious pills, he said.

As a teen he ended up in a group home, where the abuse continued.

“I was 14 and still in Grade 3,” he said.

One thing led to another and Brisson ended up on the streets.

He had trouble finding work because, without reading and writing, he couldn’t get the appropriate certificates.

“But someone was looking out for me,” he said.

Brisson secured a welding job in northern Alberta where tickets weren’t needed, learned “bush English,” and stayed there for the next 27 years.

He eventually started his own business with his ex-wife who took care of all the paper work.

But, when his marriage dissolved, Brisson’s dependency resurfaced.

Desperate, he moved to Whitehorse.

“I moved here, and it saved my life,” he said.

Right away, he went to Yukon Learn to search out programs for his teenage children who, like their father, both suffer from learning disabilities.

But Yukon Learn couldn’t help his kids.

“They told me my kids were too young for the programs,” said Brisson.

“So, I said, ‘What can you do for me?’”

Three years later, he’s been to Ottawa eight times, attending literacy conferences and advocating for funding, and is now reading at a Grade 6 level.

“I started from scratch,” he said.

“I couldn’t go to college, I couldn’t go anywhere, because no one can handle someone who doesn’t know anything.”

Brisson began meeting with a Yukon Learn volunteer twice a week, and soon started a similar program with a volunteer from the L’Association franco-yukonnaise.

“They wanted to see if it would make a difference if I was learning in my own language, ‘cause I was mixing everything up,” he said.

He also got involved with the Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon and ended up undergoing a psychological assessment.

“And the doctor wrote me off,” said Brisson.

“The report stressed that it was 20-times harder for me to learn things than most people, and that I may never get it,” he said.

“I have attention deficit disorder, dyslexia; I am 60 per cent deaf in one ear and 30 per cent deaf in the other and I have a speech impediment.”

The psychologist told Brisson to apply for his disability pension.

“He told me all I could do is pump gas or be a parking attendant.”

Instead, Brisson attended Yukon College’s Essential Skills classes for two years.

Still involved with several local literacy programs, Brisson went on to win the Canada Post literacy award and the Premier’s Award for Literacy.

However, his disabilities continue to hamper his writing skills.

Twice a week, Brisson goes to Yukon disabilities to use its voice recognition program to write up receipts and estimates for his business, Northern Lites Painting.

The association was planning to help Brisson buy a voice-recognition program for his home computer, but the federal cuts put a stop to it.

The francophone association also had a teacher lined up for Brisson, but following Harper’s cuts, announced the day he put $13.2 billion toward the federal deficit, the money is gone.

“Volunteers, who hold down regular jobs, taught me to read in their spare time,” said Brisson.

“And now Yukon Learn had many of its special programs cut and is going to have to rely on more volunteers.

“But they’re hard to find.”

In the past few years, Brisson attended several conferences in Ottawa to raise money for literacy.

“And it took forever to get it,” he said. “But eventually we raised $7 million, so the national literacy funding totalled $30 million.

“And now we’re losing $17 million — over half the money.

“So what all these people worked for over the last 15 to 20 years, Harper destroyed in one blow.”

Brisson’s 17-year-old son still can’t read, nor can his 10-year-old grandson.

And with the Conservative cuts, Brisson fears for their future.

“Moving here saved my life,” he said.

“The only way you can become independent is to learn as much as you can.”

“If (the literacy programs) hadn’t worked for me, I’d probably be dead right now.”