Senator Hubley stresses importance of literacy

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Honourable senators,

I am pleased to rise today to speak to you about an issue that has been neglected over the past decade: literacy.  I know many of us find it hard to believe – especially in this high-tech world – but 48% of Canadians do not have the literacy skills to participate fully in our society.

Our good friend Senator Demers has told us what it is like to live with low literacy skills.  He has spoken about his experiences, and the challenges he faced.  He has become a true role model, inspiring others to improve their literacy skills.  And he has helped bring this important topic to us here in this chamber.  I wish he were here with us now to bring his wisdom to this debate.

I would also like to pay tribute to our former colleagues, Senators Catherine Callbeck and Joyce Fairbairn, for their work on this file.  As we all know, both made enormous contributions to the cause of literacy here in the Senate.

But sadly, not much has changed in recent years.  As I said, 48% of working age Canadians have low literacy skills.  Yes – nearly half of Canadians aged 16 to 65 do not have the minimum skills required to succeed. Indeed, even more – at 55% – have numeracy skills below the minimum level to participate fully in our society.

Some of the lowest literacy rates in the country are found in Atlantic Canada: 50% in Nova Scotia, 54% in New Brunswick, and 56% in Newfoundland and Labrador.  In my home province of PEI, it’s 46%.

This is a serious problem.  How can we expect to prosper as a nation when our population lacks the skills necessary to succeed?

There are significant benefits related to literacy, both to individuals and to our communities.

The first should be obvious: economic.  We already know that there is a correlation between literacy and wage levels.  We know that Canadians with low literacy skills are about twice as likely to be unemployed.

They are more likely to receive social assistance – in fact, 65% of social assistance recipients have low literacy skills.  When employed, they’re more likely to be employed in the lowest paying jobs – nearly half of low-income Canadians also have low literacy skills.

But improving those skills increases the potential for a better job with a better wage.  One Statistics Canada study has indicated that each additional year of education is worth more than 8% on their paycheque.

For the nation as a whole, a paper done by TD Bank Financial Group found that a 1% increase literacy skills would create a workforce that is 2.5% more productive, and would increase our GDP by one-and-a-half per cent.

Literacy rates also have an impact on health.

First and foremost, a person with low literacy skills can be more likely to have accidents at work, simply because they are unable to read health and safety regulations, or machinery instructions.  Overall, they are more likely to be employed in primary resource or the construction industries, and these have accident rates well above average.  This results in higher absenteeism, lower productivity, and can even put co-workers at greater risk of injury.

At home, people might experience more mis-medications because they don’t understand the pharmacist’s instructions.  They have difficulty finding and understanding health information.  They may not understand their doctor’s instructions, and so do not ask questions and learn more about their health.

As to communities, increasing literacy has a beneficial effect on civic engagement.  People with low literacy are less likely to be active in their communities.  They are less likely to volunteer: here in Ontario, about half of people with low literacy skills volunteer, while nearly 80% at the highest levels do.

People with low literacy are also less likely to vote.  A UNESCO report of the political benefits of adult literacy put it like this:

“In modern societies, literacy skills are fundamental to informed decision-making, to active and passive participation in local, national, and global social life, and to the development and establishment of a sense of personal competence and autonomy. … it has been demonstrated that as individuals acquire greater knowledge and information, they also demonstrate a greater propensity to participate in various political practices.”

We will all benefit from a more informed and engaged population.

On the negative side, low literacy levels are highly prevalent in correctional facilities.  About 82% of offenders have skills that test lower than the tenth grade, while 65% test lower than grade 8.  Inmates with poor literacy skills are also more likely to re-offend once released.  The good news is that prison literacy programs can be a big help, lowering recidivism by up to 30%.

According to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, it can also help youth at risk to develop the skills they need to find and keep jobs, and thus escape poverty.

We lose out financially when Canadians are held back by low literacy.  There is a real cost involved, in areas like social assistance, health care, Employment Insurance, prison upkeep.  The World Literacy Foundation estimates that the economic and social costs of illiteracy in Canada runs more than 32 billion American dollars.

As surprising as it might sound, the problem is that these numbers are not going to get any better.  Even with more and more young people pursuing post-secondary education, they will not offset the number of adults with low literacy skills.

The fact of the matter is that if people do not use their literacy skills, they will lose them.  Reading is not something a person learns as a child, and then it stays with you, unchanging, all your life.  The loss of literacy skills is a gradual process that begins at the age of about 25, peaks at around 40, and tapers off during late middle age, at about 55.

Luckily enough, in my home province of PEI we have people who are working with great passion and dedication to make some headway on this challenging issue.  The PEI Literacy Alliance is one.  They have a number of programs I feel it necessary to highlight:

  • Summer Tutoring Program for Kids: Over the summer, a child’s reading skills can deteriorate. Some call it “summer slide”.  This program pairs kids at risk with a tutor, so that the child can keep up their skills.  More than 10,000 students have participated over the last 15 years, and the vast majority of students maintain or improve their skills
  •  Adult learning program bursary: Many low-income working people simply don’t have the financial means to go back to school. This program helps them to go, so that they might earn their GED or grade 12 certificate.
  •  PEI Volunteers for Literacy: This is a one-to-one tutoring for adults, including seniors, to improve literacy skills.
  •  Free Books for Kids program: It is a fact that parents who have books in their home increase the level of education their children will attain. This program helps families build their home libraries – more than 21,000 books have been given out since 2010.

The PEI Literacy Alliance does great work, but like other provincial, territorial and national literacy coalitions, their federal core funding was cancelled by the previous government in 2014.  Strapped for money to operate, only 9 of the 15 coalitions are still open, and the PEI Literacy Alliance is in real danger of closing in the near future.

Project-specific funding is helpful for specific projects, but core funding is absolutely necessary to keep the doors open.  The Alliance needs staff to initiate, organize, and run the many programs that it provides.  Reinstating core funding for this organization and all those that remain would go a long way to helping increase literacy skills on the Island and beyond.

Another organization that does great work is Workplace Learning PEI.  Many people simply don’t meet the model to gain literacy and essential skills on their own.  Programs at college or private institutions are not made for them.  They may not have the skills to qualify to attend, or they work and can’t take time off.  They might be challenged by anxiety because they had bad experiences at school or they lack confidence in their ability to learn.  But Workplace Learning helps by assessing needs, developing a learning plan that suits the person’s schedule, and providing one-on-one support and guidance.

Workplace Learning also partners with employers to set up essential skills programs.  In their own words:

“It has been shown that employees with developed essential skills, such as math, reading and using workplace documents – respond better to change, make fewer mistakes, work safer and contribute more at work.”

Workplace Learning can help set up a place for learning at the worksite so that employees don’t have to travel.  They can assess employees to identify needed areas of improvement, then help employer and employee to achieve that goal.   The benefits for the employer are impossible to deny – they point to a recent study on Canada’s hotel industry, which found an average of 25% return on investment for training programs, with some participating companies reporting returns as high as 300%.

Even with the great work of organizations like these, the fact of the matter is that we lost some ground over the last decade.  Changes to the federal adult learning programs did not always go well.  We lost some organizations and some volunteers, but we need to move forward now, and the federal government has to play an integral role.

That role is recognized by many.

We all know that the Senate Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology recommended that the federal government sustain strong financial support for adult and family literacy programs in its report on poverty, housing and homelessness.

A year later, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities also called on the government to take steps to substantially increase adult literacy levels, and to increase adult learning and training offered by businesses.

We need to do more as a country to ensure that all Canadians are working to their full potential.

We should support those organizations on the ground that help deliver our literacy programs.

We need to encourage more employers to invest in the literacy and essential skills development of their employees.  Government can help do that through Labour Market Agreements or existing literacy and essential skills funding programs.  For those with low literacy skills who are unemployed, we need to create alternative learning opportunities.

There is no doubt that we would benefit from developing and implementing a national literacy strategy.

Honourable senators, if we were to improve literacy levels across the country, we would see real benefits to individuals, to their communities, and to Canada as a whole.

I encourage you to participate in this inquiry on behalf of your own respective provinces, and share your thoughts and possible solutions.  As I have said, I am certain that we can begin an engaging and fruitful discussion on literacy in Canada.

Thank you.


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