Inquiry—Debate Continued

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 Tkachuk)

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, today, I wish to add my concerns about recent cuts in government funding in support of literacy.

To preface his budget cuts on September 25, Treasury Board Minister Baird, in a joint announcement with Finance Minister Flaherty, said:

We are trimming the fat and refocusing spending on the priorities of Canadians.

After we saw what was cut, we have an idea of the image of Canada that this government has. This government thinks programs that help the most vulnerable in our society are fat that needs to be trimmed. What kind of crazy starvation diet is this?

I know that I am not alone in my outrage and shame. How can programs that support literacy in adults in Canada be considered fat by this government?

The Conservative government defends itself by saying that it will support national or federal programs in support of literacy but will not support regional or local groups working across the country to help millions of Canadians who have trouble with reading and writing tasks. In essence, the government is saying, “That is not my department. Go somewhere else if you need help.” That is the response of this government to a problem that has far-reaching consequences on the lives of individuals, on the welfare of families and on the future of our country.

How can we tolerate this government abandoning the most vulnerable Canadians, people who are the least equipped to succeed and to participate in society?

Despite a $13-billion surplus, this Conservative government is saying to the adult Canadians who have low literacy skills that they do not matter. If they were not already excluded from much of society because of their lack of literacy skills, these people would be outraged. The fact is that the people who need literacy programs are the least likely to be aware of these cuts and call Stephen Harper’s government to account. Many people with low literacy are on the edges of society, on the outside looking in, wanting to be active participants in Canada’s economy and society. They are less likely to have well-paying jobs. They are less likely to vote. That is why these cuts are not only mean-spirited but also cynical and calculated. That is why we honourable senators need to speak out.

We here in Ottawa need to remember that Canadians do not care what level of government provides which service. What they expect is a government that meets the pressing economic, health and social needs of its citizens. That is what literacy is.

Here, in Canada, we have built a society based on values such as mutual help and support. We believe that the government has to be a force for good and show leadership in helping people get training and find good jobs. With these cuts to literacy programs, this government is betraying the values that we hold dear.

Literacy is an economic issue because in today’s labour market people change jobs frequently and need to acquire new skills throughout their working lives. Do not just take my word for it. Let me quote our Minister of Human Resources and Social Development, the Honourable Diane Finley. On September 8, International Literacy Day, Minister Finley said the following:

Strong literacy skills are more important than ever in today’s knowledge-based society. Literacy and other essential skills provide a foundation for skills development and lifelong learning, and can help all Canadians participate in our economic prosperity and improve their quality of life.

Statistics Canada says that a 1 per cent rise in literacy scores is associated with an eventual 2.5 per cent relative rise in labour productivity and a 1.4 per cent rise in our GDP. By boosting adult literacy levels by just 1 per cent, Canada could generate $18 billion per year. Thus, if we boost support for literacy, we could more than cover the cost of the cuts the Harper government just made.

We know that Canada’s economy depends on immigration. Literacy skills are one of the ways we help new arrivals to this country boost their language skills and assimilate into their new society. Lack of literacy is one of the barriers that prevent many Aboriginal people from getting better jobs and living healthier lives.

Literacy programs are important to help immigrants and newcomers settle in their new country. These programs help Aboriginal people seeking training to find better jobs and lead healthier and happier lives.

Yet, on September 25, this government decided not to continue funding programs across Canada that were reaching out and providing literacy training in support of the thousands of adults who need help.

We know that there is a strong link between literacy and success on the job. The better an individual’s literacy skills, the more likely that person is to have a good, well-paying job. The weaker an individual’s literacy skills, the more likely that person is to have a poor paying job or no job at all. In fact, people with low literacy have only two thirds of the incomes of other adults.

The inevitable consequence of this situation is poverty. There is a connection between literacy and poverty. If we want to tackle poverty, we have to tackle literacy.

Honourable senators know there is a connection between poverty and poor health, just as there is a connection between poverty and literacy. Is there a connection, then, between health and literacy?

People with low-literacy skills are more likely to live and work in places that are unsafe. They are more likely to be under stress. They are more likely to have long-term health problems. Yet, they are less likely to understand the complex information that accompanies medication and treatment for such health problems. They are less likely to have access to information about eating well, exercising and not smoking. If we want to improve the health of Canadians, we must improve literacy rates. If we want to promote health, we must promote literacy.

It is clear that literacy is linked to many issues that affect the welfare of our citizens and the future prosperity of our nation. Any cuts to literacy programs, from my perspective, are incredibly short-sighted.

There is a clear link between literacy levels of parents and their children. Parents with strong literacy skills are more involved in the education of their children. Parents with strong literary skills are more likely to read to their children and to provide opportunities for them to strengthen their literacy skills. Those parents are partners in education.

Ms. Harper knows the importance of literacy for children. She and Minister Baird were volunteering with CanWest in a promotion called “Raise a Reader.” To Ms. Harper and Mr. Baird, I say this: To raise a reader, it certainly helps to be a reader.

If we want to tackle literacy in children, we have to tackle literacy in adults. If we want a strong future, we have to tackle literacy. Our job, honourable senators, is to hold this government to account and question such mean-spirited, short-sighted budget cuts.

If we want to build a strong Canada, we have to train our people and ensure that all Canadians have the tools they need to succeed. It is incumbent upon us, honourable senators, to insist that the government reconsider these cutbacks and provide its most vulnerable citizens with the necessary programs. With a $13-billion surplus, it has no excuse.

We have a $13-billion surplus. The people of Canada have needs that must be addressed. They are not the fat to be trimmed off a surplus budget. If we are not using this money for those who need help, what is it good for, honourable senators?

Government is not always about value for money; it is about value for people.