Debates of the Senate  
1st Session, 39th Parliament,Volume 143, Issue 63.
  Thursday, January 30, 2007
Inquiry-Debate: State of Literacy
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 LeBreton, P.C.)

Hon. 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 Saskatchewan.

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 functioning.

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 large.

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 September.

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.



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