TORONTO - Canada's four largest cities are expected to see growth in the number of adults with low literacy skills by 2031, with the biggest surge projected for the country's capital, according to a report released Wednesday.
Canada may be among the leaders of industrialized nations and rank among the best educated countries, but the report from the Canadian Council on Learning suggests the country is hardly immune from literacy problems within the population.
Low literacy is defined by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's International Adult Literacy Skills Survey as having difficulty in reading, understanding and functioning effectively with written materials.
The council's report projects there will be little to no change in the proportion of adults with low literacy in Canada overall, and a small increase in the total number of adults with low literacy within the next two decades.
Ottawa is predicted to see an 80 per cent surge in the number of adults with low literacy skills, from more than 275,000 in 2001 to nearly half a million in 2031.
Meanwhile, of the four cities, Montreal is expected to experience the lowest increase — 20 per cent — in the number of adults with low literacy skills, from 1.5 million in 2001 to more than 1.8 million in 2031.
Both Toronto and Vancouver are expected to see a rise of 64 per cent in the number of adults with low literacy.Toronto is projected to see an increase from 1.9 million to nearly 3.2 million, while Vancouver is expected to see the numbers go from nearly 800,000 to more than 1.3 million.
"In all cities, what we're seeing is vast increase in ... the actual numbers of people with low literacy skills, even though the percentage of the population with low skills will decline slightly," CCL president and CEO Dr. Paul Cappon said from Ottawa.
Cappon said the good news that emerged was a projected decline in the percentage of the overall adult population with literacy skills below Level 3 — the benchmark for being able to cope with the demands of everyday life and work in an advanced society.
"The bad news (is) we're going to have several million more people below the levels we need in a knowledge economy," he said.
In Montreal, the estimates signal improvements among the city's immigrant population, with a projected 10-per-cent decline in the proportion of immigrant adults with low-literacy skills.
Cappon said Quebec's strong policies on second or third language acquisition may be another reason Montreal is projected to fare better.
While the total proportion of immigrants with low literacy skills is expected to decrease over a 30-span, the absolute number is expected to rise by 61 per cent — to more than 5.7 million by 2031.
Cappon said Canada must do a much better job in ensuring that immigrants have literacy skills in one or both of the country's official languages.
"The reason for which immigrants have more difficulty integrating in the workforce in Canada is not because of discrimination, it's because they don't have, in many cases, the skills in literacy that are required," he said. "And I think that is the responsibility of the host country — to ensure that they acquire those skills so that they can integrate into the workforce successfully."
The growing number of seniors with low-literacy skills is another key factor in the projected overall increase. The council predicts that number will more than double to 6.2 million by 2031.
In Ottawa alone, the population of seniors with low-level literacy is expected to see a 167 per cent increase. The city's total number of immigrants with low literacy is expected to more than double within a 30-year span.
Cappon said work needs to start early on to address literacy shortfalls. That includes ensuring every child finishes secondary school, a protection against literacy loss later in life, even as seniors, he said.
Cappon said more needs to be done to encourage employers to offer workplace education, including skills development, particularly literacy. Increased learning opportunities for adults, such as opening public schools up to the community, will help ensure individuals keep up with skills and learn other competencies, he said.
The reason literacy is so critical is because it has a direct impact on people's health, employment, income and on their ability to be self-sufficient, he said.
"Throughout society, this is really a social education project that you can't lay at the door of the education system or governments only," he said. "It's not a matter of governments, it's a matter of all of us doing our share."
The report results are based on data on literacy levels and personal characteristics observed in the 2003 International Adult Literacy Skills Survey, using a sample size of 25,000.
Data from the assessment was used to analyze the relationship between individual characteristics — age, gender, education, and immigrant status — and literacy skill level. Literacy levels were combined with detailed population projections produced by Statistics Canada for 2001 to 2031.
The report's release Wednesday coincided with UNESCO International Literacy Day.