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The Hon. James  Cowan, Q.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. Senator James Cowan has greatly influenced the educational and legal communities of Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005 by the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

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State of Literacy—Debate Continued

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Statement made on 07 February 2007 by Senator Grant Michell

Hon. Grant Mitchell:

Honourable senators, it is my pleasure today to speak on the inquiry of my colleague Senator Fairbairn calling the attention of the Senate to the state of literacy in Canada.

As Senator Fairbairn noted, the low literacy rate is a national disgrace and too little has been done about this problem.

The $17.7 million dollar budget over 12 years recently announced by the Conservatives for regional and local literacy programs gives credence to that statement.

This is just one more example of a government that caters to a narrow sector of the electorate with tax cuts and other short-sighted solutions while ignoring those who are marginalized and have no lobby groups like the National Citizens' Coalition to speak for them.

In addition to the devastating social impact of these cuts, it is also evidence of the economic short-sightedness of this government's ideological agenda and highly ironic that this government, which would promote itself, as so many Conservative governments do, as being good for an economy, cannot see how literacy programs are an essential element of a strong economy.

All major studies show that literacy is linked to productivity, international competitiveness, and ultimately gross domestic product growth. In fact, according to Statistics Canada, a 1 per cent increase in literacy rates correlates to a 2.5 per cent increase in GDP. That means that if Canada increased literacy by 10 per cent over a decade, our GDP would increase by $118 billion, or by 15 per cent. This is the kind of return on investment that the Conservative government literally calls "wasteful spending."

Every penny invested in literacy has a multiplier effect on the economy. The Conservative government claims that the programs they are cutting are not the responsibility of the federal government. In fact, the federal government is in a position to provide the most cost-effective funding because it can provide information and programming to local agents while avoiding duplication.

The National Literacy Secretariat, in fact, provides vital infrastructure to all the literacy programs across the country, fewer now than there were before the Conservative government got started. Without the resources and central coordination role of the National Literacy Secretariat, programs across the country have lost an important resource for curriculum development, learning materials and professional development for educators.

The impact of these cuts, therefore, will be multiplied by the loss of pooled resources and national partnership. The catalyst that the National Literacy Secretariat is will be lost, as will the energy and drive that it has provided literacy programs across the country.

The government claims that these cuts are aimed at the elimination of local and regional programs because these would be better funded by other levels of government. Of course, they have not gone to the trouble of ensuring that other levels of government would actually fund them. Cutting these programs for the sheer ideological purpose of downloading responsibilities to lower levels of government is already having a negative impact. In Alberta, for instance, half of the funding to Literacy Alberta has been cut. This will seriously compromise the Literacy Helpline, one of the most effective outreach tools to those at risk.

However, this government is not concerned about those adults already at risk. The minister said that the money would be better spent on children's programming. Would it be that they actually spend the money on children's programming. This government has already given up on the 42 per cent of adult Canadians who have difficulties with literacy. The government must believe that it is too late for the 9 million Canadians between 16 and 65 who would have trouble performing basic daily functions at work and at home because they have trouble reading and writing. The government says it wants to focus on children instead, but they ignore the fact that there is a direct correlation between the education levels of parents and the literacy skills of children.

There is an even greater direct relationship specifically between the education level of women and the education level of their children. Often, literacy concerns can affect women, in particular immigrant women, who are often trapped in their homes because they cannot speak and are not literate in their second language, English.

There is a cost to the economy as well.

At a time of acute labour shortage in parts of the country, the Conservative government ignores the fact that adults with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed. Last year, the World Economic Forum in Geneva downgraded Canada's global competitiveness ranking from thirteenth to sixteenth.

At the same time, there is evidence that up to 45 per cent of new jobs created in Canada will require at least 16 years of education, all this while four out of 10 Canadians have literacy levels below grade 9. It is not hard to see that there is a serious disconnect.

Honourable senators, in addition to the obvious repercussions for Canada's competitiveness, failure to take action has a significant economic impact on the health system.

Statistics show that health care costs of those with low literacy levels are significantly higher than the average. Low literacy skills lead to more workplace injuries and deaths, mainly because individuals are not able to properly read and understand safety directions. Those who cannot properly read the instructions on their prescription medication have greater incidence of hospitalization and long-term health effects.

Literacy skills are integral to quality of life. In addition to employment prospects and family income levels, literacy has an impact on individual dignity and independence. Low literacy skills can make individuals more vulnerable. For instance, for women who face domestic violence, difficulty with reading and writing can be an impediment to seeking help.

Literacy skills are lower amongst new immigrants and Aboriginal populations, groups already economically and socially marginalized. Low literacy skills have a direct impact on the factors that also lead to high crime rates, including poverty, unemployment and social isolation.

For a party whose rhetoric is so often to "get tough on crime," because that sells so well politically, the Conservatives have failed to grasp the obvious link between literacy and crime prevention. Anything that takes a jump or a link seems to escape the Conservatives and this is a classic case. Adult offenders are three times as likely to have literacy problems, and, once again, to put it in economic terms, the American-based Rand Corporation found that one million spent on incarceration of prisoners might prevent 60 crimes a year, while one million in incentives to graduate from high school prevents 258 crimes per year. Yet this government is planning to put more people in prison for longer amounts of time while cutting literacy programs. I will bet they do not have literacy programs in prison.

Before I conclude honourable senators, I would like to remark on the role that literacy programs play in enhancing democracy. A truly democratic and accountable government relies on an informed and engaged citizenry. People who cannot read and write at a functional level cannot participate in civil society; they cannot defend their human rights access government services or hold governments accountable. In effect, they are disenfranchised. I find it sad that instead of trying to empower these individuals this government prefers to ignore them.

These literacy cutbacks are one further indication of an overwhelming, defining characteristic of this government and most Conservative governments but particularly characteristic of right-wing, mean-minded Conservative governments. These governments often reward the rich, as they have done with tax cuts, and they usually penalize the poor by cutting programs. The irony in this case is that even Conservatives, with their purported capitalistic perspective, should be able to see that these programs have economic benefits and essential imperatives. That is particularly so in an economy like Alberta's where we do not have a sufficient labour force and where there are many young people and, in particular, Aboriginal people, who have the capability, ultimately, to participate fully and contribute socially and economically but cannot because they do not have adequate literacy skills.

This government, for all the short-sighted things it has done in its short single year in government, will be remembered for this kind of characteristic initiative to cut literacy programs to the detriment of the economy and, even more important, to the detriment of many less fortunate Canadians. Rewarding the rich, penalizing the poor, penalizing the less advantaged and taking advantage of the vulnerable will characterize the history of this government.


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