Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 39th Parliament,
Volume 143, Issue 51

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

State of Literacy

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 Robichaud, P.C.)

Hon. Mobina S.B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I also rise to speak to the inquiry of Senator Fairbairn on the state of literacy in Canada.

Before I make my remarks, I would like to take this opportunity to salute Senator Fairbairn for the work that she has completed on this issue for many years.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

Senator Jaffer: She has certainly made us proud.

Several weeks ago I listened to the statements provided with respect to this inquiry by Senator Carstairs in which she laid out challenges faced by adults who cannot read in their daily lives.

I was moved by what she said, especially towards the end, when she told us that many illiterate adults in this country are not people incapable of learning to read but are people who have not been given the opportunity.

Today, I want to bring another dimension to you regarding literacy, that is, people who cannot speak either English or French.

Statistics Canada, as well as my own experience, show that language skills in general are increasingly a problem for immigrants to Canada. Not only can some immigrants not read or write, but some cannot speak the language.

In their first language, these people in most cases are capable individuals. Some of them have a great deal of wisdom and experience to impart, and bring a wealth of cultural knowledge to Canada. Giving these people the opportunity to integrate into our society not only benefits them and their communities, but it benefits all of Canada.

As Senator Carstairs mentioned, we face a growing shortage of skilled labour in this country that will not be addressed if we do not allow people to have access to literacy programs in both official languages. However, it is not only our workforce that can be hurt; we also miss out on many intangible qualities that new Canadians bring to our country and promote separation of communities. When we isolate people from reading, writing and speaking skills, we risk isolating entire communities from the mainstream of Canadian society.

Not being able to communicate with each other threatens the fabric of our multicultural nation. Lack of communication breeds distrust and misunderstanding and runs contrary to many of the values we all hold dear as Canadians, including the respect of cultural values and equality under the law.

That is why I am disappointed to see the government cutting back on adult literacy programs. I believe the programs are more crucial than ever. Denying the opportunity for adults, especially adult immigrants, to enhance their reading, writing and speaking skills in both official languages is a serious mistake.

According to the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey, immigrant populations in Canada continue to be significantly below the national average in areas of literacy, numeracy and problem solving. This situation is particularly concerning because, according to Statistics Canada, over the preceding decade, immigrants to Canada were twice as likely as Canadian-born individuals to have a university education.

For the most part, recent immigrants to Canada have been well educated in their countries of origin. However, they continue to struggle to find well-paying jobs when they arrive, in part because they lack basic skills such as literacy.

Cutting back literacy programs at a time when even these well-educated newcomers to our country cannot compete with the skills they have is a tremendous step backgrounds. In fact, the problem goes deeper.

Still in immigrant communities, many who do not have literacy skills to get through their daily lives are often held back by the fact that they cannot speak either official language. This problem creates a double-edged sword for immigrants to Canada that makes it impossible for them to become effective members of the labour force.

This situation is not good for immigrants because it does not allow them to seek the best life possible for them and their families. However, it is also bad for Canada because we will not get the most out of a pool of otherwise skilled labour as we face the challenges of an aging population.

Honourable senators, you have heard some of these statistics from the Honourable Senator Poy, but I would like to remind you that according to the Statistics Canada study on the issue of immigrant literacy and language skills from the 2001 census, despite higher education levels among immigrants, only one in ten speak French or English as a mother tongue as opposed to one in three in 1980. More immigrant families speak a non-official language at home than in the 1980s. Forty-three per cent of immigrants whose mother tongue was not English or French scored at a lower level on the prose literacy scale in the International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey. There was a strong link between literacy skills, employment and wages, and the wages of women are especially linked to language proficiency and literacy.

Honourable senators, these types of statistics make it clear that we should be providing more resources for literacy, not fewer. However, like Senator Carstairs said, I believe the statistics do not always capture the reality of the situation as it exists for many in the country.

I want honourable senators to take a look at some of the situations that Senator Carstairs so eloquently described when she spoke on this issue. However, I also want to show that there are larger problems for immigrant women who may struggle with language skills. I hope this will underline how taking a step back in areas like adult literacy will not only make it more difficult for new Canadians to function in our society but how it will lead to the isolation of these communities.

Senator Carstairs told us how a Canadian who could not read might not be able to set the clock radio. Honourable senators, imagine, in addition to that, you could not even understand what your radio was saying. It is nothing more than noise to you and you cannot understand something as basic as a weather report.

Senator Carstairs mentioned how difficult it would be for an illiterate Canadian to prepare breakfast for their family and take an active interest in their children’s school activities. However, what if you could not understand your children’s activities because they learn a language you cannot speak? What if every time your children went to school their reading and language skills became better than yours? What if your child had to accompany you to your doctor and interpret for you what your doctor said? It is difficult enough for parents to understand their children without speaking an entirely different language.

Senator Carstairs told us how an illiterate Canadian would not be able to use a bank machine and would have to speak to the teller, but an immigrant who could neither read nor speak the language could not speak to the teller either. Imagine how difficult it would be to get by if you were completely unable to manage your own finances.

We heard from Senator Carstairs about the difficulties that illiterate Canadians have finding work, but for immigrants who cannot speak either official language, the chances are even worse still that they will ever find good-paying work. We know that women in particular cannot find work in the service or knowledge sectors without these basic abilities to communicate.

Senator Carstairs finally told us how hard it is for illiterate Canadians to get help so that they can take an active role in the development of their family and community. For immigrants who do not have these skills there are even more challenges. For them, lacking these skills means not only embarrassment, but isolation from society. It forces them to seek out others like themselves and avoid situations where they are forced to interact with mainstream Canadian society. It drives Canadian communities apart and prevents us from coming together as a country.

What chance at the life we all dream of can you have if you cannot even be part of a society in which you live, if you cannot even speak to each other?

When I was a young child my grandmother taught me that my neighbour was my first relative. She taught me that you went to your neighbour for a cup of sugar, to share stories or to get help in an emergency. Today, for some Canadians, they cannot even speak to their first relative, their neighbour. How will we, in Canada, come to know each other, to work with each other in our communities and, most important, have fun with each other if we cannot speak to each other? In our great country, we need to be able to tell each other what our challenges are.

Honourable senators, we have to make sure that everyone who wants a chance has it. I hope you will all urge the government to not only reconsider cutting funding to adult literacy but also increasing the fund to literacy programs for new Canadians so that no one in this country is forced to live in isolation.

Senator Tkachuk: Would the honourable senator take a question?

Senator Jaffer: Yes.

Senator Tkachuk: After 13 years of Liberal government, the honourable senator paints a gloomy picture of how immigrant training is faring in Canada.

If my honourable friend has evidence or information on cuts to immigrant language programs, could she please bring it to us here in the Senate chamber, since that was what her whole speech was about?

Senator Jaffer: I thank the Honourable Senator Tkachuk for giving me the opportunity to tell him of the challenges. Before I do that, let me acknowledge someone who has really changed the lives of immigrant women.

When I first came to this country, language courses were not provided to immigrant women because it was thought that they were not part of the workforce. Some of us got together and started a court challenge to ensure that immigrant women received language classes. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stopped that court challenge and made sure that immigrant women were given lessons.

The challenge is that lessons are only provided to immigrants for the first three years until they become citizens. Last week, the Official Languages Committee heard from members of the French ethnic community in Vancouver who said that for their first three years in British Columbia, they received courses in English. Senator Comeau will vouch for what they said. They said that they were taught how to order tea or how to go to the grocery store. However, they were doctors, teachers and professionals and were not taught the language of professionals. Once they become citizens, no further courses are provided.

My mother has always said to me that good things will come from this debate. Since this debate has started, one of the things about which I am excited is that we have to start looking at providing English to French-speaking people who come to British Columbia or other parts of the country and French to English-speaking people who go to Quebec so that we can communicate with each other.

One of the other things I learned in this debate is that once one becomes a Canadian, there is not a separate immigrant program. When literacy programs get cut, they are cut for all of us. Those programs apply to all immigrants.

Senator Tkachuk: If the honourable senator wishes to work toward adding more money to the present immigrant language program because she thinks it is insufficient, that is one thing, but there were no cuts to the immigrant language program. This tactic of attempting to scare people into thinking that there were cuts to the immigrant language program is just not correct. Does my honourable friend have evidence to show that there were cuts made to the immigrant language program? This kind of politics will not get us anywhere. If she wants to improve the program, then let us talk about that. Let us not make statements like she and Senator Poy have done, saying there were cuts to the immigrant language program when there were not any.

Senator Jaffer: Perhaps I did not make myself clear, so I will try again.

Cuts to literacy programs across the country affect immigrant programs. After three years, gladly in our great country, one is no longer an immigrant; and when one becomes a Canadian, programs that are cut for Canadians apply even more so to immigrants. There are not separate programs for immigrants who have become Canadian citizens. There are not separate programs that they can attend. The programs are directed at immigrants before they become a Canadian citizen.

Therefore, the literacy programs that have been cut across the country apply to all. What Senator Poy and I were trying to point out is that, when these programs are cut, the effect is felt even more by those who have bigger challenges of not only writing and reading, but also speaking.

Hon. Gerald J. Comeau (Deputy Leader of the Government): Could I ask the honourable senator a question?

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator Jaffer would have to ask for an extension of her time.

Senator Jaffer: Could I have an extension?

The Hon. the Speaker: Is it agreed, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Comeau: Senator Jaffer referred to the Senate committee’s meeting last week in Vancouver. We were there and we did get a number of people who had come from Africa who were now living in British Columbia. They came to Canada first as French-speaking citizens. Most of them, I believe, had immigrated to other parts of Canada first — especially in French-speaking areas. Some of them did wish to move to British Columbia. One of them said it was for reasons of the weather — I am not quite sure if I agreed entirely with her last week — that the weather in British Columbia was milder than what they had experienced in other parts of the country.

My recollection of last week was that most of these people, if not all, were extremely well educated. One of them actually served a number of years as a journalist with Radio-Canada. One of them is a teacher. The impression I had from most of them was that they were quite literate, very well informed. For some of them, the problem they faced was being able to switch over from French to English because they were living in British Columbia. Since British Columbia is mostly an English-speaking province, their problem was being able to increase their language skill. One of them even went to the point of saying, “I wish to increase my skills from being a very advanced French speaker into having very advanced English-speaking skills, and I am not getting the kind of help that I think I should have in order to do that.”

All of this has absolutely nothing to do with literacy, or the whole subject of this inquiry, which was for advancing people into a literacy program. What they were asking for was something entirely different. Am I reading this right? What I heard last week is that these people were not asking for literacy advancement, but something entirely different. I do not think such programs exist, either with this government or under the previous government. Therefore, none of these programs has been touched by the current government; they just were not there, as far as I know. Am I right?

Senator Jaffer: I wish to thank Senator Comeau for his question. However, first, I want my colleagues here to know that when the committee met with these French-speaking Africans, they felt that they were heard for the first time. They were very complimentary of the committee’s work in B.C.

As to the honourable senator’s question, it depends on what glasses one is wearing. The person Senator Comeau is referring to was a journalist in Ottawa who had to move to Vancouver. She said that she is literate in French but not in English.

As I said previously, what has opened up this debate is the realization that literacy across the country is dependent on the provision to adults of English- or French-language training. That is something that has come out of this debate that is positive. Hopefully, through our committee or in other ways, for the unity of our country, we will find ways in which adults can get English in French-speaking parts of Canada and French in English-speaking parts of Canada, so that more of us can learn both languages.

On motion of Senator LeBreton, debate adjourned.