Frank McKenna addresses Pan-Canadian Literacy Forum

by NationTalk on April 18, 20081048 Views

Frank McKenna, former premier of New Brunswick and the current deputy chair of TD Bank Financial Group, delivered the following remarks to the Pan-Canadian Literacy Forum on Tuesday, April 15, from Saint John, New Brunswick:

Thank you

Let me first congratulate the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) for organizing this forum.It’s an incredible initiative – presented in an innovative way. And it’s a real testament to the co-operation and collaboration required to generate national attention on literacy matters.

I also want to acknowledge the participants in Saint John – and across the country – who’ve made history by participating in this unique national gathering.

You’re very much behind today’s achievements and, I’m confident, will be at the forefront of tomorrow’s accomplishments, as we work toward improved literacy outcomes for all Canadians.

This includes Dr. Fraser Mustard, whom I share the stage with today. The work of Dr. Mustard and Margaret Norrie McCain on early childhood development is seminal and groundbreaking. And I’m deeply grateful for their important contributions to this field of research.

I’ve come here for three reasons.

The first: to show my support for your efforts in developing a pan-Canadian literacy action plan. It’s an act of leadership – at a time when Canada needs your leadership most.

The second: to stress why literacy matters more than ever – given the world we live in now. It truly is a passport to prosperity and the great enabler for success.

And third: to urge you to advance new ideas and initiatives that improve our literacy outcomes, and in turn, enhance our social and economic well-being.

An Action Plan: An Act of Leadership

Let me turn to the first of three points I want to make today – the importance of a pan-Canadian action plan on literacy. I believe its time has come.

The modern world is fast dividing along literacy lines.

On one side are those who can communicate, comprehend and compute with great skill and ease. The world provides these highly literate people with all sorts of opportunities to enrich their lives and standard of living.

On the other side are those who have difficulty reading, locating and interpreting information or performing mathematical calculations. The world will be much tougher on these people, as opportunities to advance and engage will seemingly pass them by.

These literacy lines – that divide the haves and have nots of the knowledge economy – have been drawn across the globe. And international studies reveal Canada is on the whole a highly literate nation.

That’s the good news.

But the results of many benchmark studies – the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey – the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – are not so clear cut. They’ve revealed discrepancies across our country, communities and people.

That’s the bad news – because it begs a fundamental question: how can a nation move forward, if some of its citizens are falling back?

Consider just some challenges we face.

At a time when knowledge workers are central to our success, almost half of Canadians aged 16 and over have inadequate prose and document literacy skills, and more than half lacked the desired level of numeracy.

At a time when we need to tap into new talent pools to address our labour shortage problem, the majority of new Canadians have inadequate proficiency levels in English and French.

The same is also true with many Aboriginal populations. For instance in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, six in 10 do not achieve adequate literacy scores – the results are even worse in the Northwest Territories and in Nunavut.

At a time when global forces place intense competitive pressures on provincial economies within Canada, literacy levels tend to accentuate regional disparities.

So what does this all mean?

These challenges represent a clear and present danger to our competitive standing in the global marketplace. And, in fact, we’ve already seen their effect.

Poor literacy rates have contributed to our sluggish productivity level. Not only is this a key indicator of how competitive a nation is, but rising productivity is also the ultimate source for improvements to standard of living. And, the recent Canadian track record is troubling.

It’s been getting weaker – year by year. Forty years ago, we were the third most productive nation in the world. Now we’re barely in the top 20.

Low literacy rates have cost us billions of dollars – one estimate is around $6 billion.

This productivity drag makes it a lot harder to attract new investments into Canada create and sustain good-paying jobs – grow the economy – and improve our standard of living.

None of this is news to our politicians and policy-makers. Most have made the link between literacy and prosperity. This forum is living proof of that.

But no single level of government is ultimately responsible for improving literacy outcomes.

Youth literacy falls naturally under the umbrella of education, a provincial responsibility, but immigration is a federal concern.

Policies involving Aboriginals on reserves are a federal responsibility, but those off reserves are a provincial concern.

Both levels of government have also been debating appropriate policies for early childhood education.

There is overlap too in adult literacy.

At the federal level, Human Resources and Social Development Canada runs the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills. Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Canadian Heritage, and Citizenship and Immigration Canada also run literacy-promoting activities.

Meanwhile, the provinces have their own adult literacy initiatives through a variety of social-economic programs.

I believe programs could have greater impact if all levels worked more closely together in a co-ordinated fashion. Somewhere along the way, this must be the hallmark of a pan-Canadian approach.

But CMEC is right to walk before it runs when it comes to addressing our literacy challenge. In large part, the purpose behind this forum is to frame discussions on literacy.

That’s a vital step forward – because I’m not entirely convinced Canadians fully appreciate what’s at stake – for them personally and professionally – if our overall literacy outcomes don’t improve. Because if we don’t see the problem, why would we call for a solution?

A strong case must be made for a pan-Canadian action plan.

Literacy Matters: Passport to Prosperity

This leads me to my second point – why literacy matters more than ever – given the world we live in now.

I noted earlier that our competitive ranking in the world is falling, reflected in large part by our sluggish productivity level. And I’ve suggested that our literacy outcomes contribute to this dismal trend.

It’s now crunch time. That’s because Canadians need to acquire, enhance and sharpen their skills … and be more productive … to remain relevant in the global economy.

For Canada, success is about working smarter – not harder; faster — not longer. To make this happen, we need higher literacy rates.

These are pressing challenges. But I doubt they keep the average Canadian up at night.

Pocketbook issues do, however: The opportunity to earn a good salary – live in a safe neighbourhood – enjoy a family vacation.

That’s more likely to come by if Canadians possess a good education – and a desirable level of literacy. In short, it’s our passport to future prosperity.

That was one of the underlying messages the TD Bank delivered when it published its first annual report on literacy last fall.

Our author – TD economist Craig Alexander – made a compelling case, citing a number of findings:

– The average income level of individuals with strong literacy skills in 2003 was $42,239 – more than double the $20,692 of those with poor literacy and significantly greater than the $29,001 of individuals with weak literacy.

– Based on the benchmark survey findings, TD estimated that a one per cent increase in literacy rates in Canada could boost the national income by as much as $32 billion. An economic payoff of more than $80 billion could be achieved if all Canadians reached the desired level of literacy. To be fair, these estimates are likely at the top end of the scale because the premium paid to high literacy skilled workers would diminish, but the main conclusion is that raising literacy is worth billions of dollars to the economy.

A key question relates to the cost involved in raising literacy levels. One study that is currently in development suggests that the price tag would run into the billions of dollars, but the rate of return on investment over a decade could be in the range of 100 to 200 per cent.

But the payoffs extend well beyond dollars and cents.

Studies show individuals with poor literacy are less likely to engage in civic affairs – and this can lead to a sense of social exclusion. Poor youth literacy, for instance, is related to high school drop-out rates and higher crime rates.

Higher literacy scores also tend to be correlated to better health. And better health invariably leads to a superior quality of life.

The list of benefits goes on. But my point is made. Literacy is the great enabler for national prosperity.

It’s hard to identify any other single issue that can have such a large payoff to individuals, the economy and society.

Calling for New Ideas and Initiatives

This takes me to my third and final point. Because of its great importance, I urge you to advance new ideas and initiatives that improve our literacy outcomes, and in turn, enhance our social and economic well-being.

Granted, this is no easy feat.

That’s because improving literacy levels is not just about money – or focusing on the young – or what happens inside the classroom. Moreover literacy levels can be influenced by a wide range of seemingly unrelated policies.

So what drives literacy outcomes? After reviewing PISA results, one consulting firm found the best performing countries do three things right: “Get the best teachers, get the best out of the teachers, and step in when pupils start to lag.”

In high-ranking countries like Finland and Singapore, the firm found teaching is considered a high-status profession. That prestige helps attract ambitious recruits into the field.

Personally, I’ve never understood why Canada does not hold our teachers in the same kind of regard as it holds doctors and lawyers. A literacy action plan may want to explore ways to elevate the value it places on our educators.

Improving literacy outcomes is not just about the young. To be sure, looking at early childhood development is of primary importance.

And we can assume that – on a cost-benefit basis – it makes most sense to place the greatest weight behind youth literacy, which simply reflects the fact that children can reap the benefits over a longer time-span.

However – given the nature of literacy – I don’t think we can be completely beholden to a cost-benefit approach. How does one measure the importance of increased community participation by adults with greater literacy skills? What is the dollar value on a higher quality of life and greater independence for older Canadians?

No price tag can be placed on parents who read bedtime stories to their children. It’s an immeasurable but profoundly valuable investment for family, community and society as a whole.

This leads to another point: improving literacy outcomes is hardly the sole responsibility of the school system. The home is our first classroom. And our family our first teachers.

That’s why parents should strive to nourish the literacy of their children. Surveys show that discussing topical issues with children and family cultural activities – such as trips to museums — can help to bolster literacy and the pursuit of knowledge. Similarly, parents who set higher educational expectations often foster greater literacy attainment by their children.

This is why a comprehensive literacy action plan will need to consider how it may encourage and support learning moments in home life.

And finally, literacy outcomes are influenced by a wide range of policies – seemingly unrelated.

Let me give you one example. Provincial barriers make it more difficult for an individual to transfer credits from one learning institution to another based in a different province.

In other cases, especially among the trades, employers may not recognize a specific designation from another province. These realities can discourage people from taking new courses or upgrading their skills. That’s especially problematic when we need to encourage labour mobility to address pressing shortages in various provinces.

Business groups are frustrated with these kinds of barriers – and could potentially represent an ally in voicing your concerns to policymakers and politicians. My point being: literacy advocates will serve their cause well by working with groups with shared interests.

I want to leave you with a few final thoughts.

Earlier on, I raised the question: how can a nation move forward, if some of its citizens are falling back?

The answer is we can’t.

We can’t move forward when millions of Canadians have inadequate skills to read, write and do basic math; when the majority of new Canadians are not adequately able to speak English and French; when stark regional discrepancies deprive economic opportunities for local workforces.

Like you, I want to live in a country that can compete against the best in the world – and win. A country where communities are wealthy, people are healthy and streets are safe. A country that offers our children a promising future.

This is all made possible through literacy. And that’s why we need to work together to address and overcome our literacy challenges.

We start from a position of strength. Not only in ranking, but also in resources.

You’re very much at the centre of our success. And I encourage you to build upon it – to champion a pan-Canadian literacy action plan – so that our country continues to grow and prosper.

Let’s make it happen together.

Thank you.


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