Illiteracy in Canada
The phone rings one afternoon and on the other end of the receiver is the voice of desperation.
A husband who has immigrated to Canada in the hopes of creating a better life for his family begs for his wife to get started with one of Frontier College’s literacy programs. He says she cries everyday and feels she can’t leave the house because she is afraid she lacks the basic literacy skills and comprehension of the English language needed for tasks such as grocery shopping or speaking to a doctor. Her kids go to school, and he is out job searching during the day, leaving her alone and mute in Canadian society.
This is just one of the many cases that Ramona Clarke of Frontier College has encountered during her time as a community coordinator for the Halifax branch of this national non-profit organization.
Adult literacy is still a huge problem in Canada.
According to the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), 48 per cent of adults (those 16 and over) have low literacy, meaning they are below level 3 on the literacy scale. The majority of these people are from particular demographics, such as seniors, immigrants and Aboriginals.
Literacy is measured on a scale of five levels—one being the lowest and five the highest. Level 1 means the person cannot do tasks as simple as reading the correct amount of medication on a label. Level 3 is approximately the level needed to complete high school.
CCL has reported that even though by 2031 the proportion of adults with low literacy will remain virtually the same (47 per cent), population growth and demographic shifts will result in an increase of 25 per cent more adults entering that low literacy group, totaling approximately 15 million adults.
Further still, while the amount of immigrants with high literacy skills will increase, so will the amount of immigrants with low literacy skills. This increase of 61 per cent will amount to 5.7 million immigrants with low-level literacy.
Organizations such as Frontier College are working to improve the literacy problem in Canada.
Clarke, who has been my supervisor throughout my time volunteering with the organization, told me the story of the wife’s struggles because she was so moved by the change in this woman’s life after she gained some basic literacy skills.
Now this woman attends Frontier College’s English language learning program once a week. She has developed the skills to accomplish her everyday needs. She has made friends with people from her program, some even from her country of origin. She no longer spends her days in Canada in silence.
“It is so rewarding to meet people, at a later stage in their life in particular, that have been through hell and back and are coming over here for opportunity and are still struggling,” says Clarke. “Yet, if you ask them if they like being in Canada, they say, ‘Absolutely, we love it here.’ It is so much better than being somewhere else.”
Another woman in the same program has emigrated from the Middle East. She is in the midst of studying for her citizenship test. On top of being overwhelmed with a new language, trying to improve her literacy skills and learning the entire political and historical background of Canada for her citizenship test, she also fears for her family back home in a warfaring country. The weight of her family’s struggles often causes her to arrive to the program in tears, but she still puts her whole heart into the session because she wants to pass the test.
“You have no idea how much it means to these people to improve their English,” says Clarke. “A lot of times they don’t even want to use their real name—the name that their parents blessed them with—on a resume, because they won’t get an interview. Some of them will change their name just so there’s more opportunity.”
The continuation of programs like those of Frontier College is essential in order to fully welcome these adult immigrants into our society. But organizations like these are facing funding obstacles hindering their support for these people.
Over the last couple of years, Frontier College has been trying to become more sustainable by applying for funding within each individual province. But funding from the government often comes with restrictions limiting the amount of non-permanent residents in each program. This puts those who want to become permanent residents in a difficult place because they must fulfill certain requirements to get that status—such as getting a job or functioning in English—yet they have no resources or support to meet these requirements.
And even when funding is secured, it can run out, leaving those in a literacy program back at square one with no more or very little support.
Although eliminating low literacy is a complicated process because of factors such as conditional funding, limited resources and restricting health issues, these people must not fall through the cracks.
To get more involved visit www.frontiercollege.ca.
Frances Dorenbaum is a volunteer with Frontier College.