On the Order:
Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator
Fairbairn, P.C., calling the attention of the Senate to the
State of Literacy in Canada, which will give every Senator
in this Chamber the opportunity to speak out on an issue in
our country that is often forgotten.—(Honourable Senator
Lillian Eva Dyck: Honourable senators, today I join
the debate on the state of literacy in Canada. Let me begin
with a quote from the Canadian Council on Learning report
entitled State of Learning in Canada — No Time for
Complacency that was released on January 26.
Literacy really matters in every country for social,
cultural, political and economic reasons. Countries that
ignore the imperatives of developing literacy skills to the
highest possible levels do so at their peril.
Literacy is a critically important issue for the Aboriginal
population in Canada, and today I will focus my remarks on
Literacy proficiency is the daily ability to understand and
to use printed material at home, at work and in the
community. Level 3, of the five levels, is considered to be
the minimum requirement for a given individual to function
adequately in our current modern, knowledge-based economy.
A given population should have at least an average literacy
score of level 3 in the domains assessed: prose, numeracy,
document and problem solving. If the average national score
is less than level 3, the skill level of the population is
not sufficient for satisfactory job performance and everyday
According to the International Adult Literacy and Skills
Survey, IALSS, conducted in 2003, the Western provinces,
B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, scored higher than the
overall Canadian average in prose, numeracy, document and
problem solving literacy. This survey was for ages 16 to 65.
In Canada as a whole, 41 per cent scored below level 3 in
prose literacy, while in Saskatchewan a smaller percentage,
33 per cent, scored below level 3. The picture for numeracy
literacy is worse for than for prose literacy. In
Saskatchewan, about 42 per cent scored below level 3.
In real terms, these numbers mean that approximately 200,000
Saskatchewanites between the ages of 16 to 65 years were
below the level of prose literacy required to function
adequately on a day-to-day basis. Similarly, about 250,000
Saskatchewanites had inadequate numeracy proficiency. These
numbers, honourable senators, are shocking.
The IALSS showed that literacy proficiency was generally
better in younger individuals. In most provinces, including
Saskatchewan, and the territories, about 60 per cent of
youth between the ages of 16 and 25 performed at level 3 or
higher, compared to only 20 per cent of those over the age
of 65. For the youth, these results may sound pretty good,
but when you consider that about 40 per cent of Canadian
youth are below level 3, which you will recall is the
minimum requirement to perform adequately in today's
knowledge-based economy, then I think you will agree with me
that we as a nation have a problem — a big problem. In
Saskatchewan, close to 40 per cent of the 140,000 youth,
that is, 56,000 young adults, also had less than level 3
prose proficiency. These 56,000 young adults would not be
able to perform adequately in everyday life, let alone do
well on the job or in school.
Honourable senators, I draw your attention now to the
Aboriginal population in Saskatchewan. In 2001, 14 per cent
of the population in Saskatchewan identified themselves as
Aboriginal. There were 78,655 Aboriginals over the age of 15
in Saskatchewan in 2001. The Aboriginal population in
Saskatchewan is comprised mostly of Indians, 64 per cent.
The majority, 65 per cent, of Aboriginals in Saskatchewan
live off-reserve, and about half, 47 per cent, live in urban
areas of the province.
The 2003 IALSS assessed the prose literacy performance of
urban Aboriginals and found that it was considerably lower
than that of non-Aboriginals. About 60 per cent of urban
Aboriginals and 40 per cent of urban non-Aboriginals had
less than level 3 prose proficiency. There were about 37,000
urban Aboriginals in Saskatchewan in 2001, so one can
estimate that about 22,000 Aboriginals in cities in
Saskatchewan had less than adequate prose literacy. At the
same time, about 180,000 non-Aboriginals living in urban
centres had less than level 3 proficiency in prose literacy.
Let me repeat that: An estimated 180,000 non-Aboriginals and
22,000 Aboriginals living in cities in Saskatchewan had less
than adequate prose literacy. These numbers are shockingly
It is important to note that the Aboriginal population in
Saskatchewan, as is the case elsewhere in Canada, is a
younger and faster-growing segment of the population than
the non-Aboriginal component. In Saskatchewan, about 60 per
cent of Aboriginals living off-reserve were under the age of
25, compared to about 30 per cent for the non-Aboriginal
population. In other words, the proportion of people under
25 years of age was two times higher in the off-reserve
Aboriginal population than the non-Aboriginal sector.
I believe it is particularly important to pay attention to
the 16- to-25-year-old age group and the 26-to-45-year-old
age group, as these groups are the major component of the
Aboriginal population above age 15. They comprise 31 per
cent and 45 per cent of the population, respectively.
Moreover, these age groups are becoming increasingly
important to fill labour shortages in our province. In
Saskatchewan, it is particularly important to ensure that
our Aboriginal population, which has proportionally more
younger people and which is growing at a more rapid rate,
has the requisite literacy skills to succeed in life in
general, and in the job and in school in particular.
The IALSS found that the prose proficiency scores of urban
Aboriginals were less than those of urban non-Aboriginals in
Saskatchewan. The average scores for the three Aboriginal
age groups, 16 to 25, 26 to 45, 46 and over, were all below
level 3, while the average scores for the non-Aboriginal
groups were above or close to level 3. It would be most
interesting to find out whether, as might be expected, the
percentage of Aboriginals with less than level 3 literacy
proficiency is greater for the younger Aboriginal age groups
than for the non-Aboriginals.
At all levels of education in Saskatchewan, Aboriginals
lagged behind non-Aboriginals. For example, in the
25-to-44-year-old group of urban Aboriginals, 32 per cent
had less than a high school education, compared to 18 per
cent of non-Aboriginals. Similarly, only 6 per cent of
Aboriginals had earned a bachelor's degree, compared to 14
per cent of non-Aboriginals. It is tempting to conclude that
the lower educational attainment of urban Aboriginals was
due to lower literacy proficiency. Any person who has
insufficient literacy proficiency will likely have less
success in their schooling or educational upgrading, and may
not be able to achieve competency in their job.
I will conclude my presentation with a discussion on one
final aspect of the IALS survey results. Much ado has been
made about the fact that the average overall national
literacy score for Canadians in 2003 was not significantly
different from that found in 1994. The finding that there
was no change in the average national literacy score can be
interpreted in three ways. One interpretation, which Senator
Tkachuk articulated, was that the literacy programs were not
doing their job because if they had been the literacy scores
should have gone up.
However, a second interpretation of the lack of change in
the prose literacy scores is that the literacy programs had
done their job because in the absence of such programs the
literary scores would have gone down.
Moreover, a third interpretation is that not enough
resources or programs were available to make any difference
in the average literacy of Canada as a whole. In other
words, not enough funding was made available to provide
enough literacy programs to help large enough numbers
improve their literacy. Not enough adult learners were put
through literacy programs to make a significant increase in
the literacy score of the population as a whole. There may
have been too few learners who had been helped by literacy
programs to make a significant difference to the huge number
of people who have below-average literacy. I would argue
that that is the case for Saskatchewan.
How many adult learners are being helped by literacy
programs in Saskatchewan? Using the IALS survey, one can
estimate that 200,000 to 250,000 Saskatchewanites fall below
level 3 in prose and numeracy proficiency. However, based on
information that I received from the Saskatchewan Literacy
Commission, a mere 2,000 adult learners are participating in
federally funded literacy programs in Saskatchewan. These
2,000 learners will no longer be able to access current
literacy programming as a result of the funding cuts
announced by the minority Conservative government in
In addition to the 2,000 learners participating in federally
funded literacy programs, about 5,000 are accessing
provincially funded programs. However, it is clear that the
total number of learners is still only a tiny fraction —
about 3 per cent — of the huge number of people — 200,000 to
250,000 — with low literacy in our province.
In addition, I would like to point out that the IALS survey
did find significant increases in the prose literacy scores
between 1994 and 2003 in Quebec, and in the document
literacy scores in the Atlantic region. One could argue that
these two literacy programs at least are working, and one
could try to figure out why significant differences occurred
in Quebec and in the Atlantic region, but not in other
regions of Canada.
Honourable senators, other countries, such as England and
Australia, have launched multi-year, well-resourced national
strategies aimed at improving literacy skills. Let me
conclude by saying that more, not less, federal funding
should be directed to improving the literacy proficiency of
the people in Saskatchewan. Furthermore, close attention
should be paid to the Aboriginal population in Saskatchewan.
It has been predicted that 10 years from now, 21 per cent of
the population in Saskatchewan will be Aboriginal, and by
2045, as much as 50 per cent will be Aboriginal. It is
imperative, therefore, that programs that increase the
literacy proficiency of Aboriginals are, if anything,
expanded rather than cut back.
Honourable senators, it is my hope that the minority
Conservative government will increase the level of
investment in literacy programs. Such an investment will pay
significant dividends in the future, as more people become
able to participate fully in everyday life, perform better
in their jobs, and contribute to our economy.
On motion of Senator Milne, debate adjourned.