Canada literacy issue

Feature: Canada promotes literacy to address poor essential skills rating

by Cristoph De Caermichael

TORONTO, Sept. 27– In a country that prides itself on education, the literacy statistics in Canada creates a paradigm that is a perplexing educational oxymoron, worthy of exploring. Canadians are considered over educated but in reality low literacy in Canada is as high as 60 percent.

September is back to school and in Toronto that means taking education to the streets, literally. The Word on the Street is a literacy event on the weekend aimed at promoting literacy for all ages and demographics.

Essential skill literacy scores in Canada have been defined as depressing, troubling and alarming, according to Toronto-Dominion Bank’s latest report in December 2013. “The need to right this ship is more pressing than ever,” said Craig Alexander, the bank’s chief economist. “Without getting the basics right, Canadians cannot build the more advanced skills the economy and the labor force require.”

TD Economics conducted a survey of essential skills by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, ranking 24 industrial countries on basic literacy and numeracy. Canada’s literacy score was positioned a mediocre 11th place while its numeracy score was below average at the 14th.

“I waited 10 years for the new numbers and I was really hoping we would see progress. It turns out we are losing ground. We desperately need to do better,” said Alexander, who serves on the boards of both ABC Literacy Canada and Frontier College.

Events such as The Word on the Street are responses to this need for essential skills by promoting reading and writing as part of an increased literacy awareness. The Word on the Street, a grassroots organization that began 25 years ago, is now featured in a few cities in Canada, including Toronto.

“Over the past 25 years we have received interest from many cities and provinces around Canada to expand the execution of The Word OnThe Street. We established a National Board of Directors to oversee and support these festivals through national fundraising and the creation of policies to ensure they reflect the same key characteristics, to support literacy, a love of reading and the promotion of Canadian authors,” Festival Director Heather Kanabe told Xinhua in an interview.

Kanabe said that in 1995 Vancouver and Halifax established regional festivals. Later on Ottawa and Calgary joined the network of festivals and Kitchener launched its first festival in 2002. Saskatoon along with Lethbridge officially launched in 2011.

Toronto is the flagship festival of the Word on the Street with massive audiences providing local support and a city that is home to many festivals. Over the years the street festival grew from 40, 000 to over 200,000.

2014 is the festival’s biggest year in Toronto. Last Sunday’s event generated the largest crowd so far to the festival. The festival authors and exhibitors were ecstatic. Many reported record book sales and continued to speak of the miracle weather for a late September day. The public has deemed this event as a yearly must-do family tradition.

“We are grateful to the over 270 exhibitors and hundreds of authors, who come out to the event, many of whom live and work in this great city,” Kanabe said.

The Word on the Street theme is literacy and the demographics are from the cradle to the grave, with literature and events spanning many age groups. As festival director in Toronto, Kanabe elaborated on the festivals impact. “The point of the festival is to reach out to as many Canadians as absolutely possible, and we continue to introduce new programming for each demographic and adjust the format of the event to entertain and accommodate all groups. This year we introduced our first literacy themed programming tent to better educate and share literacy initiatives while engaging in fun family-oriented programming.”

Canadian authors Frances Itani, Shani Mootoo, David Bezmozgis and Sean Michaels are vying for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Most were featured at the festival’s Great Books marquee, Sculpting New Reads tent and Toronto Book Awards tent.

The TD survey showed that immigrants and the aboriginal peoples weighed down the national score. These two demographics create the fastest-growing segments of the Canadian workforce. Statistics Canada corroborated the TD Bank research, along with the Department of Employment and Social Development and the provincial council of ministers of education.

Policy-makers and educators have to dig deeper to discover what they’ve been doing wrong. Researchers from Statistics Canada have embarked on six follow-up studies. “Improving literacy outcomes must be a national priority,” said Frank McKenna, TD’s deputy chairman.

Cristoph De Caermichael

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