1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 150, Issue 139

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker


Inquiry—Debate Continued

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the inquiry of the Honourable Senator Callbeck, calling the attention of the Senate to the importance of literacy, given that more than ever Canada requires increased knowledge and skills in order to maintain its global competitiveness and to increase its ability to respond to changing labour markets.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Honourable Senator Jaffer, I notice this matter stands in the name of the Honourable Senator Lang.

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: I spoke to Senator Lang and he has agreed that I can proceed.


Hon. Claude Carignan (Deputy Leader of the Government): Honourable senators, the rules state that Senator Lang’s time should continue to run for the remainder of his speaking time because he has already begun speaking to this inquiry. I would therefore like to ensure that he will be able to continue for the remainder of his time.

Senator Robichaud: We will give him five minutes.


Senator Jaffer: Honourable senators, I am pleased to participate in Senator Callbeck’s inquiry on the importance of literacy.

Today, I approach this inquiry with a great degree of humility. Canadians are fortunate — we are fortunate, honourable senators — to benefit from the tireless advocacy of several senators on this important issue. I want to speak today about the great advancements that have been made and highlight a legacy of service and achievement that I know will inspire and spur continued progress.

First, I want to thank Senator Callbeck for initiating this inquiry. As Senator Hubley reported to this chamber in November, Senator Callbeck was honoured recently with the 2012 Red Cross Humanitarian of the Year Award in recognition of her involvement in the advancement of women, women in politics, early childhood development, family resource programs and literacy. Her work on this issue as the Minister of Social Services, as Premier of Prince Edward Island and now as a senator is remarkable.



I would be remiss if I did not mention, as others have done before me, the unique perspective that Senator Demers has brought to the Senate regarding literacy.

The hockey fans among us were particularly delighted at the news of Senator Demers’ appointment in 2009. This talented coach is known for his leadership and motivational skills.

More recently, Senator Campbell, Senator Neufeld and Senator De Bané — representing both the Conservative and Liberal caucuses — responded publicly to the condescending and unfair comments made by a Globe and Mail columnist about our colleague.

I was among the 50 senators who signed Senator De Bané’s letter, in which he tells of how Senator Demers overcame his reading and writing problems to become one of the best hockey coaches in the country, as well as a very effective and highly esteemed senator.

I have nothing to add to the excellent letters written by the senators, other than to say that Senator Demers’ willingness to share his secret had a significant impact on the lives of Canadians who are struggling with this problem. Furthermore, the openness with which he faced such a challenge as a senator is a huge credit to our institution. Good role models are extremely important. They help restore people’s self-confidence, awaken convictions and fuel determination.


I want to thank Senators Callbeck and Demers for their continued commitment to literacy issues.

Honourable senators, during tributes to our former colleague Senator Fairbairn, Senator Mercer referred to this inquiry and proposed that it would be a unique opportunity to consider the groundbreaking work done by Senator Fairbairn to promote literacy. I agree.

For the remainder of my time today, I want to share some reflections on the work Senator Fairbairn has done, the legacy she leaves and the opportunity we all share to continue her work.

Senator Fairbairn made history as the first woman to serve Canadians as the Leader of the Government in the Senate. During that same time, however, she also served from 1993 to 1997 as Minister with special responsibility for Literacy. On September 5, 1997, Prime Minister Chrétien appointed her Special Advisor for Literacy to the Minister of Human Resources Development. More than 10 years before that, on March 11, 1987, Senator Fairbairn rose in the Senate to speak to the inquiry on illiteracy in Canada:

Honourable senators, one of the fundamental freedoms in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is that of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

One of the fundamental rights in that Charter is the right of equal benefit under the law, without discrimination based on race, nationality or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability.

For one in five Canadians, those words have no meaning.

They offer no sense of security and no promise of opportunity.

Those Canadians are the victims of what I believe to be our country’s hidden shame.

They are illiterate.

Honourable senators, I think it is striking that Senator Fairbairn chose the example of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In so doing, she characterized literacy not just as an essential tool or an educational currency; instead, she defined it as a human right. She also made reference in those remarks 25 years ago to a silent minority of illiterate Canadians.

In concluding her speech, she said:

Parliament Hill is the place where the nation-wide battle against illiteracy must begin, and I ask all of you to join in that battle, in your regions, in your provinces, in your cities and towns.

This chamber was created in part to protect those who exist outside the power of the majority.

I suggest now is the time to fulfil that mandate for the silent minority of illiterate Canadians.

I believe that Senator Fairbairn’s argument here is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. It is perhaps even more relevant now. The Senate plays an important role in preventing what political scientists would term the “tyranny of the majority.” In 1987, Senator Fairbairn spoke of a silent minority of illiterate Canadians. Senator Callbeck in 2012 reported that more than 48 per cent of Canadians have low literacy skills.

As Senator Fairbairn declared decades ago, literacy is a national issue with national implications. In this case, she argued that relative indifference of the majority toward this issue is trumped by an urgent need to empower and protect the rights of a minority.

Senator Fairbairn did more than give speeches and conduct research on the issue. There is a particularly telling article from the February 13, 1990, edition of the Toronto Star regarding her outreach. In February 1990, the Liberal Party was in the midst of a leadership contest, just as it is now. In Yellowknife, reporter Carol Goar filed the following article entitled “Liberal senator steps out of her cocoon.” She wrote:

A few blocks from the modern hotel where the Liberal leadership candidates held their policy debate last weekend is a one-room portable where 12 native adults gather each day to learn to read.

The contrast could not be more stark; the politicians decrying the plight of the illiterate natives and competing to promise the most money and the best programs; and the [Aboriginal people] themselves running their own modest adult upgrading program.

One Liberal, Senator Joyce Fairbairn, bridged the gap between the two worlds.

Fairbairn, a former journalist, has made literacy her personal crusade since her former boss, Pierre Trudeau, put her in the Senate six years ago.

She goes to community after community making speeches, visiting literacy projects, listening quietly to the stories of Canadians who overcame their pride and admitted they couldn’t read.

The first thing Fairbairn did, when she arrived in Yellowknife, was ask a local Liberal whether there were any adult learning classes she could drop in on.

She was directed to the Tree of Peace, a native-run program that has been operating for the last 20 years.

The director of the program, a local native leader named Tom Eagle, gave her his blessing and, while the rest of her Liberal colleagues were busy preparing for the leadership debate, Fairbairn slipped out to the Tree of Peace.

Goar’s article continues that Senator Fairbairn:

… explained to the 12 wary Aboriginal Canadians in the room that she had come to see a success story, not to lecture or judge.

“I told them who I was and why I was interested, and then I just sat down and let them take over,” she explained.

“I don’t think I was what they were expecting.”

Indeed she wasn’t, Eagle said later.

The natives were used to bureaucrats who came in and told them how to run the program better, how to modify it so they would qualify for federal funds, what to teach, how to upgrade their standards.

At one point, he recalled, the meddlesome whites came close to destroying the initiative.

Fourteen years ago, a delegation from the federal employment department came in and told the board of directors that the program was eligible for generous support from Ottawa.

The natives were delighted and began making ambitious plans.

Then the bureaucrats mentioned that there was one slight restriction on federal funding.

It was available only to students who had already completed Grade 7. That ruled out 90 per cent of the class.

And it set off hostilities between those getting government money and those struggling along on their own.

“By the time we realized how detrimental it was turning out to be, it was too late — the damage was done,” he recalled.

Eagle realized he was taking a risk opening the doors to a senator.

But he wanted to get the message back to Ottawa that community-based programs work.

Government-imposed solutions don’t.

Fairbairn knew none of this when she entered the classroom.

But she did know one thing: The word illiteracy hurts.

Not knowing how to read is not a disease or deformity or mark of failure.

It is merely the outcome of a lack of training or missed opportunities.

“I wish the word illiterate could be wiped out,” she mused.

The effect was electrifying.

One student, a former miner who had been injured after 23 years on the job, shot out of his chair.

“Listen to this,” he said, and played a tape of a CBC broadcast in which an interviewer kept asking an adult education teacher: Why are so many natives ILLITERATE? How do they cope when they are ILLITERATE? How do you teach an ILLITERATE?

The word was like a slap in the face.


Fairbairn cringed each time she heard it.

As she prepared to leave, she told the class that she had learned more than them that morning.

The next day, at the Liberal policy forum, the candidates struggled to outdo one another in proclaiming their concern about native education. They dispensed statistics and promises.

They pledged to set up boards and appoint commissioners.

They vowed to find money for a “massive injection” of federal funds.

The situation was a moral outrage, they agreed.

Education was a fundamental right.

One Liberal did not sit and theorize.

Fairbairn did what more politicians should do: Get out of their cocoon and listen.

Honourable senators, this story reveals the essence of Senator Fairbairn’s approach to advocacy. Simply put, Senator Fairbairn reached out to people, included them, empowered them. She listened to people and tried to better understand their goals, their day-to-day struggles, their dreams and aspirations and then she would work tirelessly to help people realize those dreams for themselves.

A few years after her visit to the Tree of Peace in Yellowknife, ABC Life Literacy Canada established the Honourable Joyce Fairbairn, P.C. Literacy Public Awareness Award, more commonly called “The Joycee,” in honour of Senator Fairbairn, “… a long-standing champion of the literacy cause in Canada.”

The award recognizes Canadian corporations’ exceptional contributions in support of literacy. It is fitting that an award in Senator Fairbairn’s name would recognize contributions from the private sector. When she launched her Senate inquiry on literacy in 1987, she commented:

Honourable senators may have noticed that I have not yet indulged in that favourite Canadian pastime of saying that the government must solve the problem, that it is completely up to the government.

The reason is that this is one area where the government simply cannot do it all.

Senator Fairbairn recognized that, like so many of the most complex public policy issues facing us today, addressing literacy requires a whole community approach. Having said that, Senator Fairbairn went on to say:

I must very quickly add that such comments do not let the government off the hook—not by a long shot.

Federal government leadership—and that means everyone from the Prime Minister down—is critical to this issue, because the government has something that no other group or individual in Canada has: it has a national presence; it has a national responsibility and it has national facilities to use.

Senator Fairbairn’s advocacy and awareness-raising inspired remarkable contributions from such diverse organizations as the TD Bank Group, Coca-Cola, Air Canada, CanWest Global Communications and the Barenaked Ladies. She also recognized that the government had a role to play as an awareness raiser, as a facilitator, as a leader.

Senator Fairbairn possessed a unique ability to sew together disparate groups and coalitions, visions and ideas, efforts and agendas. When it came to the Senate, she knew that we do our best to work together.

She leaves behind a legacy of intensive and purposeful collaboration on this issue, standing in the Senate again and again to raise awareness and rally us to the cause of literacy, all the while ensuring that she emerged from her cocoon, engaged with the community and listened to Canadians.

What next, now that our dear colleague and friend has taken leave of this place?

Honourable senators, I would answer that question with an excerpt from a speech that Senator Fairbairn gave on September 26, 2006, in the Senate about literacy. She said:

We simply have to work together, and I know we will do that in this chamber. Without the foundation of appropriate skills, lack of literacy becomes a daily barrier for adults who cannot help their children at their earliest age. It becomes a barrier for workers; for seniors at risk with health care needs; and for the overall economy of our country in dollars because we lose millions, even billions, as a result of the added cost through lack of skills and the unintended problems they cause in what we think of as a prosperous and caring country. We bring down the prospects for a future if we do not accelerate our support in a fair and generous way.

Surely we can all work together with goodwill and commitment to erase what I still believe is our hidden shame.

These are the profound words from a strong and inspirational woman who worked incredibly hard to improve the lives of others. Before I conclude, honourable senators, I want to share a personal story about Senator Fairbairn. We became quite close over the years. I considered her my mentor.

Years ago when she was visiting British Columbia, she stayed at my home in Vancouver. One day she woke up to the sound of bagpipes. One can imagine her surprise: Bagpipes at 7 a.m. in the home of an Indo-Canadian family. She discovered my son practicing and exclaimed to me, “This is what is so great about our country. We share and adopt one another’s traditions and cultures.”

I now associate the sound of bagpipes with Senator Fairbairn and her limitless enthusiasm for our great country and the promise it holds. I want to thank Senator Fairbairn, Senator Demers and Senator Callbeck once more. I feel very fortunate to count them as my mentors. I would go the extra mile for each of them. They have my profound respect and gratitude for the work they are doing to advance literacy issues. Today and always, they have my unwavering support and admiration for the great work they do.

(On motion of Senator Lang, debate adjourned.)