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Executive Speeches and Articles

April 15, 2008

Frank McKenna, Deputy Chair, TD Bank Financial Group

Remarks delivered to the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) at the Pan-Canadian Interactive Literacy Forum in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Thank you.

Let me first congratulate the Council 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 cooperation and collaboration required to generate national attention on literacy.

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 our tomorrow's accomplishments, as we work toward improved literacy outcomes for all Canadians.

This includes Dr. Fraser Mustard, who 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 to develop 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 third: to urge you carry on after this conference - 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 - almost uncaring - as opportunities to advance and engage will seemingly pass them by.

These literacy lines - that divide the have's and have not's of the knowledge economy -- have been drawn across the globe. And international studies reveal Canada is -- on the whole -- a highly-literate nation -- well-positioned to thrive in the modern world.

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 - 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, 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 decline from above national average in western Canada to below national average in eastern Canada, accentuating 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 affect.

Poor literacy rates have contributed to our sluggish productivity level -- a key indicator of how competitive a nation is.

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's 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 policymakers. 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 work more closely together in a coordinated 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 won't get any easier. Higher literacy rates are growing in importance. 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.

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.
  • TD estimated that a one percent increase in literacy rates in Canada could boost the national income by as much as $32 billion, noting that an economic payoff of more than $80 billion could be achieved if all Canadians reached the desired level of literacy.

But the payoffs to improved literacy rates extend well beyond our economy.

Studies show individuals with poor literacy are less likely to engage in civic affairs - and 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. I just don't have the time address them all.

But my general point has been 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.

If it's just about money, why have there been no material improvements in literacy standards in the primary schools of England, Australia and the United States? These three countries have increased their education spending dramatically in recent decades.

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."

The firm found teaching in countries like Finland and Singapore is considered a high-status profession. And 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 doctors or lawyers. A literacy action plan may want to explore ways in which 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.

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.

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. There are provincial barriers, which 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. All this makes life-long learning more difficult, especially as Canadian workers travel across the country seeking employment.

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 and aboriginal populations are not adequately able to speak English and French; when stark regional discrepancies deprive economic opportunities for local people.

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.

Thank you.