Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I am pleased to speak today to our former colleague Senator Elizabeth Hubley’s inquiry calling our attention to the state of literacy and literacy programs in her home province of Prince Edward Island and the need for federal support for these programs. I will focus my remarks today on the state of literacy in my province of Nova Scotia.
The importance of supporting those groups that are working hard to help Nova Scotians who are struggling with literacy and numeracy skills cannot be overstated. Literacy skills are not only essential for a robust labour force; strong literacy skills allow Canadians to break the cycle of poverty and to participate fully within our communities and even within their own families.
As a former elementary school teacher, I am acutely aware of the importance of literacy and numeracy skills. Over the 30 years I spent teaching in Nova Scotia, I experienced first-hand the challenges that some students face. The elementary school level is where all students begin to lay the foundations upon which their learning journey will be built.
I was fortunate to meet with representatives from the Canadian Teachers Federation yesterday. Our discussion focused on the challenges facing school systems, and the effects that poverty and poor mental health can have on learning, which can result in poor literacy skills. Even at a very young age, warning signs and red flags can become apparent. Warning signs can include learning disabilities, behaviour family issues, not having enough to eat, not having enough sleep or needing glasses. A lot of the time, teachers will pick up on these warning signs early and with the support of parents and the school the issues can be addressed.
However, no system is perfect, and for any number of reasons, some students can fall behind academically. The challenge then is that the child is always trying to catch up. The end result is that too many students either drop out of school or make it through high school with inadequate literacy and numeracy stills. For those students, it often results in a future of low-income employment, and for the local economy, it means a less robust labour market, one that is not prepared to compete in today’s world economy.
To quote Frontier College’s National Forum on Literacy and Poverty:
Statistics Canada confirms that “literacy skill level and household income are positively related.”
In an information-based economy, people who struggle with literacy have a hard time getting a job or making more than minimum wage. Likewise, higher literacy and numeracy skills are associated with greater employment levels and higher earnings.
In Canada, as many as 4.3 million people are living with poverty. Though evidence suggests that raising literacy rates is one of the best ways to change this, literacy often plays a limited role in coordinated strategies to alleviate poverty.
Unfortunately, the previous government cut core funding to all literacy programs across the country and moved instead to a short-term, project-based funding model. We know that investment in programs to alleviate poverty is better for families and, of course, the children in those families.
The current government has unfortunately not changed the project-based funding model instituted by the previous government. In a response letter to Senator Hubley in June, Minister Hajdu said in relation to the possibility of restoring core funding:
Given the magnitude of the skills challenge that needs to be addressed, we have prioritized working closely with provincial and territorial governments to support the integration of literacy and essential skills into employment and training programs. This includes the almost $3 billion in federal labour market transfers, such as the Labour Market Development Agreements and the Canada Job Fund.
The minister went on to say:
Organizations are encouraged to work with their provincial and territorial governments to see how they might support literacy and essential skills projects that are being funded by federal transfers.
I would like to congratulate the Government of Prince Edward Island, which recognized the importance of literacy to the labour market. It was announced that the Prince Edward Island government would provide core funding of $150,000 for the next two years to allow the PEI Literacy Alliance to continue operating.
I would like to thank Senator Hubley, Senator Griffin and, before them, Senator Callbeck for continuing to be strong voices for literacy in Prince Edward Island.
Honourable senators, we know that 48 per cent of Canadian adults are considered to have inadequate literacy skills. This is unacceptable in a country like Canada. As Senator Hubley pointed out in her speech, some of the lowest literacy rates of working-age Canadians are found in Atlantic Canada, with 54 per cent in New Brunswick, 56 per cent in Newfoundland and Labrador, 46 per cent in Prince Edward Island and 50 per cent in Nova Scotia. Of course, these are provincial averages, and when you look at typically disadvantaged groups, the numbers are much higher.
For school-aged children in Nova Scotia, 34 per cent have inadequate reading skills. Though these numbers are lower than the average working-age Nova Scotian, 34 per cent is still significant and unacceptable.
Honourable senators, as core funding for literacy programs was cut across the country, literacy organizations have had to adapt or close their doors, as was the case in 2015 with Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador. It is unfortunate that the previous government funding for literacy was cut as poor literacy rates were rising. The demand for literacy programs has grown over the years, and provincial and territorial programs and not-for-profit community literacy organizations continue to work hard. I would like to recognize one of these small programs in my own community: the Dartmouth Learning Network Society.
Established in 1985 under the leadership of Dr. John Savage, who was the Mayor of Dartmouth and a strong advocate for literacy, the Dartmouth Learning Network Society provides opportunities for adults and their families to improve their reading, writing and math skills.
The society offers programs for adults who are looking to learn new skills or to gain their adult high school diploma to help them find meaningful employment. The society also helps adults with learning challenges to develop their skills and provides assistance to parents and caregivers, child care centres and community members who ensure that children achieve success in school. The Dartmouth Learning Network Society does all of this with only four full-time and three part-time staff members. They rely heavily on volunteers to deliver their programs. They estimate that the 40-plus trained volunteers who make all of this possible contribute over $100,000 in unpaid service to the society each year.
The mission of the Dartmouth Learning Network Community Learning Team is “dedicated to helping raise the aspirations and abilities of Nova Scotians looking to improve opportunities in life for themselves and their children.”
Honourable senators, the Dartmouth Learning Network Society is not unique, because small literacy organizations just like this one continue to do great work every day in all of our communities with the help of hundreds of volunteers.
Honourable senators, with a project-based funding model, applications for these small programs divert precious resources to an almost continual application process for funding. I believe that reversing the poor literacy rate trends will require a focused and forward-thinking policy. Literacy is a cornerstone building block in Canadians’ lives. Literacy helps Canadians to get out of poverty and to live healthier lives. When Canadians are equipped with the essential skills to enter the workforce, this helps not only the individuals but also their families and their communities.
Honourable senators, I want to again thank Senator Hubley for bringing this inquiry to the Senate and the good work that senators Callbeck, Fairbairn, Griffin and Demers have done in elevating the issue of literacy in Canada. And lastly, I would like to thank the hundreds of volunteers across the country for the time that they spend in their communities helping Canadians to improve their literacy skills.
Hon. Senators: Hear, hear.