LITERACY: Shifting priorities: Federal literacy policy since 2006

Brigid Hayes

The year 2005 marked a high point in recent federal literacy policy. That year the federal Advisory Committee on Literacy and Essential Skills (also known as the Bradshaw Committee) brought together Canadian literacy organizations and the federal government to map out a broad vision for a national literacy strategy that recognized the right of all Canadians to have the literacy skills they need “to participate fully in our social, cultural, economic, and political life.” The federal government backed up its commitment by promising to increase its dedicated $28 million in annual spending on literacy by $30 million over three years.

Only one year later, a significant shift in the federal approach to literacy policy would begin under the newly elected Conservative government. In short order there would be budget cuts for literacy organizations and programming, and a further narrowing of policy goals to the needs of the labour market. Eventually, the central role of the provinces and territories in the planning and delivery of training programs would also come under threat.

This article provides an overview of these trends by exploring three elements that demonstrate the current government’s policy stance on literacy. First, it examines federal budgeting and administration, and the enforced alignment of literacy organization activities with federal policy. Secondly, it explores how the federal government is using labour market agreements (LMAs) to shape literacy policy at the provincial and territorial levels, particularly in the area of training and essential skills. Finally, the article looks at the effect of a singular measure of literacy on policy and practice. It concludes that literacy policy is at a critical juncture with significant shifts expected in all three areas over the next year.

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In important ways, recent changes to literacy policy and programming reflect a pattern that began in the early 1990s. In advance of International Literacy Year in 1990, the federal government created the National Literacy Secretariat (NLS) with a mandate to work with provinces, the private sector, and voluntary organizations to develop resources to ensure that Canadians had access to the required literacy skills (see Box 1). The NLS was originally housed in the Department of the Secretary of State, which was also responsible for citizenship. This association reflected the perspective that literacy was essential to a citizen’s full participation in Canadian society. In 1993, the NLS was transferred to Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), signalling a shift in literacy policy toward improved labour market outcomes (see Box 2). Even after this move, however, many of the original social development features of literacy policy remained intact. Literacy remained an issue tied to broad socio-economic participation and lifelong learning. NLS projects supported community-based literacy, family literacy as well as workplace literacy and plain language.

Box 1: The National Literacy Secretariat
Until it was replaced by the Office for Literacy and Essential Skills in 2007, the National Literacy Secretariat had two functions. One half of its budget supported national literacy organizations and national projects undertaken by voluntary organizations, business associations, and labour groups. The other half of the budget supported projects at the provincial- territorial and local levels using matching funds from the provinces and territories. Since the NLS was not permitted to fund the direct delivery of literacy training, these funds supported research, practitioner training, curriculum development, awareness raising and outreach, and information sharing in the provinces and territories.

 

Box 2: Essential Skills Framework
In the early 1990s, the federal government looked for a way to describe the basic or essential skills tasks of various occupations to support its national occupational standards. Nine essential skills were identified and their use within various occupations documented. The nine essential skills are: Reading, writing, document use, numeracy, computer use, thinking, oral communication, working with others, and continuous learning. Practitioners in workplace LITERACY Shifting priorities: Federal literacy policy since 2006 Brigid Hayes Northern Public Affairs, December 2013 39 literacy and sector councils adopted the framework as a way to understand job requirements in terms of literacy and other essential skills. The NLS supported the development of curriculum, training of practitioners, and research based on the essential skills framework. The development and application of the essential skills framework signalled a growing emphasis on the economic dimension of literacy. Beginning in 2006, federal literacy policy moved decisively away from providing support for community- based literacy and family literacy. In 2007, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada abolished the NLS to create OLES, the Office of Literacy and Essential Skills (italics added). HRSDC’s successor department, Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) funds national projects dealing with literacy and essential skills for work-related purposes. OLES is described as “a Centre of Expertise with a workplace focus – building awareness and capacity in ‘what works’ to improve the literacy and essential skills of adult Canadians” with labour market attachment as the policy objective.1

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Funding and Administration of Federal Literacy Programming

The current federal policy stance towards literacy is reflected in the way literacy programs are funded and administered. Since 2006, federal funding cuts have been significant. The 2006 budget abolished the federal- provincial-territorial cost shared arrangement (see Box 1), representing $17.7 million or approximately 42 percent of the NLS annual budget.2 Since few provinces or territories were able to finance these activities on their own, the result was a significant reduction to research budgets, practitioner training, curriculum development, and other activities that support literacy training. While the cuts to literacy programming were made within the context of an overall reduction in federal spending, the relatively small amount of savings belied a shift lowering the priority placed on literacy as a federal policy issue.

A small portion of these cuts affected provincial and territorial literacy coalitions (see Box 3). This funding was intended, in part, to coordinate efforts at the local level and to provide a direct link between the federal government and the local literacy community. A massive advocacy effort on the part of the literacy community saw core funding reinstated for the literacy coalitions. However, funds were never restored to the federal-provincial-territorial cost shared budget.

In addition to a smaller budget and a greater focus on labour markets, the way OLES delivers its programming has changed. In 2007, OLES began issuing competitive calls for proposal for national projects rather than engaging, as the NLS had, in a collaborative proposal development process focusing on local or regional needs. Since then, the time lag between application and funding approval has grown to at least six months – and in one case, years – while the administrative burden of using contribution agreements rather than grants (as was the NLS practice) has favoured larger project budgets. These changes may have contributed to fewer projects being funded overall.3

While OLES has been funding fewer projects, it has also been lapsing money. From 2000-01 until 2005-06, most of the NLS annual budget was completely spent. However, between 2006-07 and 2011- 12, despite receiving Parliamentary approval for almost $191 million, OLES has lapsed more than $60 million (see Figure 1). Rejection rates may provide some insight into why this might be happening. In 2009-10, for instance, 247 proposals were received, 41 approved, 199 rejected, and 7 withdrawn.4 An 80 percent rejection rate indicates either a poorly conceived and written call for proposals or an almost universal inability for organizations to develop successful proposals.

The significant under-spending by OLES is troubling. Yearly lapses leave OLES vulnerable to further budget reductions. Meanwhile, the lengthy periods between calls for proposal and the awarding of projects undermines stability in the literacy field, since needs, personnel, and partners can change quickly.

Notwithstanding budgetary lapses, at some point since 2006 OLES began to supplement its resources with funds from the Pan-Canadian Initiatives (PCI) under the Employment Insurance Act.5 The PCI is designed to promote an efficient and integrated national labour market, address common labour market challenges, and promote equity of opportunity, including enhancing investments in workplace skills.6 In 2011-2012, the most recent EI Monitoring and Assessment Report shows that $11.9 million in EI funds supported 21 essential skills projects (including work on the Essential Skills Profiles).7

Box 3: Literacy Organizations
National literacy organizations and provincial and territorial literacy coalitions provide advocacy, coordination, knowledge exchange, training, and research on behalf of their constituencies at the national and provincial/territorial levels. Following the re-instatement of funding to provincial and territorial- level literacy coalitions in 2006, and perhaps as a means of deterring further protests about the abolition of the federal-provincial-territorial funding, OLES began to provide core funding to organizations at the national and provincial-territorial levels. Core funding will end in June 2014.

It is not clear why OLES has accessed these funds while lapsing its own. However, we do know that the core funding of several provincial and territorial literacy coalitions using EI resources puts pressure on these organizations to align their activities with federal labour market priorities. This creates challenges for many coalitions whose members do not support this shift and would prefer to focus on family or community literacy, or who lack the capacity to respond to workplace issues. In a few provinces, existing workplace literacy and essential skills organizations are already providing this focus.

Soon after establishing core funding for literacy organizations in 2006, OLES reversed its thinking and began seeking ways to reduce its ongoing commitments. In 2012, OLES informed the literacy organizations that core funding would end in June 2014 and held its own consultation to validate its perception that a pan-Canadian network could replace the current complement of national and provincial-territorial organizations.8

Photo credit Northern Public Affairs.

Photo credit Northern Public Affairs.

Since 2006, the federal government has taken steps to limit its involvement in literacy. It has done this by cutting funding; allowing OLES to consistently underspend its budget; using its funding authority to direct activities towards a labour market focus; and working to replace the network of literacy coalitions and organizations that currently exist at the national and provincial-territorial levels.

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The Role of Provinces and Territories in Training

In order to fully understand how literacy priorities are shifting under the Conservative government we must also look to the changing involvement of the provinces and territories in training. Until 1996, the federal government delivered training and other employment services such as Targeted Wage Subsidies, Self-Employment Job Creation Partnerships, and Skills Development to unemployed Canadians eligible for EI. In 1996, the federal government began signing Labour Market Development Agreements (LMDAs) with the provinces and territories. The LMDAs transferred responsibility and resources for these training and employment services to the provinces and territories. Over the next 10 years every province and territory began to deliver these services.

One limitation of the LMDAs is the narrow population they serve. Many unemployed people are not eligible for EI and so do not benefit from the LMDAs. In 2007, the federal government introduced Labour Market Agreements (LMAs), which transferred $500 million annually to provinces and territories to provide training for those people not eligible for LMDA services. The LMAs are significant because they place a special emphasis on literacy and essential skills, targeting people without a high school diploma and those with low literacy skills. The LMAs are set to expire on March 31, 2014.

LMAs have enabled the provinces and territories to create their own programs that respond to literacy and essential skills issues in the workplace, among the unemployed, and in some cases within the community. Yet despite these efforts, the March 2013 federal budget signalled a definitive change to the current arrangement. The federal government announced its intention to re-negotiate both the LMDAs and the LMAs “to ensure that skills training funds are beingused to help Canadians obtain qualifications they need to get jobs in high-demand fields.”9 The intention to re-negotiate the LMDAs was a surprise since these agreements did not have a fixed end date.

The centrepiece of the federal approach is the Canada Job Grant (CJG). The CJG would provide $300 million annually to directly connect skills training with employment. A maximum per person federal contribution of $5,000 will be made available to “eligible training institutions,” with matching dollars required from employers and the provinces.10 Literacy and essential skills are no longer a stated priority. In the future the federal government plans to finance its share of the CJG by redirecting 60 percent of the LMA funds from the provinces and territories. Provinces and territories will need to identify new resources to fund their matching contributions as well as to continue to offer existing LMA programming with 60 percent fewer dollars.

The CJG is based on the assumption that employers will contribute up to $5,000 per individual for existing employees. Canadian employers typically do not encourage or pay for workplace training, and there is no evidence available to suggest that employers would be prepared to pay to train unemployed people.

Perhaps the biggest design challenge the CJG will need to overcome is the problem of displacement; that is, using public funds for training that would have already been delivered by the private sector. In order to ensure the CJG will create additional training opportunities the CJG will need to find ways to encourage small businesses to provide and fund formal training, and it will need to provide incentives for employers to train the unemployed.

Provinces and territories have reacted negatively to the proposal. The Council of the Federation issued statements at its July 2013 meeting reiterating provincial and territorial jurisdiction over training and criticizing the federal government for its lack of consultation.11 This fall, the Forum of Labour Market Ministers released a report on the provincial- territorial track record on building skills.12 That report criticized the CJG for removing $600 million per year from programs for vulnerable clients. Other criticisms include limiting eligibility to clients with an employer, the lack of evidence that the proposal will help workers or employers, and the destabilization of the existing training delivery system. Under the Conservative government, federal efforts of the past six years to improve the literacy and essential skills of the most vulnerable are likely to be discontinued. Provincial and territorial programs for the workplace and for the unemployed may also end. With its emphasis on employer requirements and short-term training, the CJG will be hard pressed to address the challenges faced by people without grade 12 or those with low literacy and essential skills.

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“Measuring” Literacy

A third, and arguably problematic, element of the government’s approach to literacy is its reliance on metrics as a way of crafting literacy programing. The International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey (IALSS) is intended to provide a broad overview of a country’s literacy levels based on a narrow measure of how well adults use printed information to function in society. The trouble with this tool is that it fails to value the full range of literacy skills or the self-confidence, social capital, or long-term gains that come from improved literacy.

This has not stopped the federal government and some provinces and territories from declaring the need to raise the literacy levels of Canadians to level 3, as measured by the IALSS.13 The risk of relying on this goal is that it could result in preferential support for those individuals who have a chance of reaching it, leaving others without the necessary assistance.

Nevertheless, the release of the latest results from an OECD literacy survey may create even more pressure to conform to a narrow set of standards. In early October 2013, the OECD released the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), the latest international literacy survey. The 2013 PIAAC results for Canada as compared to the 2003 results show an increase in the proportion of Canadians at the two lowest literacy levels and a decrease in the proportion of those at the two highest levels. Overall, Canada’s mean score dropped by 6 percentage points.14

While it is early days and not all of the information from PIAAC has been digested, clearly governments will be taking stock of the numbers and deciding how to respond. A series of policy institutes, convened by the Centre for Literacy, have facilitated a dialogue that “traced the shift from ‘literacy’ to ‘skills’ to ‘competencies,’ and explored evolving methodology and the impacts of the international literacy assessments over two decades on policy and practice.”15 The literacy community, governments, academics, and international speakers reviewed IALSS’ meaning and impact for policy and practice, prepared for PIAAC and, in late October 2013 will begin interpreting PIAAC results.

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Conclusions and Commentary

Federal literacy policy has shifted considerably since 2006, and more changes should be expected in the near future. Funding cuts and under-spending demonstrate a reduced commitment to literacy as a national issue. Moreover, the policy area itself has narrowed from a broad-based issue focusing on the social, economic, and political nature of literacy to an issue related primarily to the labour market.

The federal government is trying to wield more influence over employment training – an area for which the provinces and territories have held responsibility since 1996. After years of supporting literacy and essential skills through the LMAs, the federal government is seeking to transform those agreements and reduce support for those individuals with the lowest skills. Finally, measures of success continue to be narrowed to outcomes as determined by international surveys. These changes have occurred as public information about spending and policy intentions has become more difficult to access.

The future is uncertain. The federal government’s decision to re-negotiate the LMDAs and LMAs at the end of March 2014, including its plan to create the CJG, has the potential to radically change how training is funded and delivered. The federal government has indicated its willingness to implement the CJG without the participation of the provinces and territories. Whether that is possible remains to be seen. The public criticisms of the LMA renegotiation, which includes the CJG, by the Council of the Federation are unusual and federal- provincial-territorial tensions are running high.

The federal government’s decision about which organizations will be part of the pan-Canadian network may create a new set of partners at the national level. Without knowing who has been selected to participate or what roles they will play, it is difficult to speculate about how well the pan-Canadian network will fare. Nevertheless, it is clear that the decades- long relationship between the 22 core funded organizations and the federal government will end. The termination of core funding in June 2014 will likely mean the demise of some organizations or, at a minimum, a significant re-structuring.

The PIAAC results, having not met the standard set by the federal government and some provincial governments, may lead to changes in how literacy is supported. The OECD concluded that there is a strong case to maintain public investments in skills. Hopefully Canada will reach the same conclusion rather than criticizing and further impeding the current literacy system.

These elements hold the potential for a substantial re-thinking of how Canada approaches literacy policy and practice. The federal government could re-commit to creating a national literacy strategy, adequately funded, to support provincial and territorial efforts. A broader approach to literacy and essential skills, one that reflects the ways people use literacy, could see literacy outcomes measured by a variety of tools. Taking the time to examine the evidence could lead to new, effective incentives for employers. Collaboration and cooperation with the provinces and territories could lead the federal government to re-negotiate agreements that build upon existing successes.

While specifics are not known, what is clear is that by the end of 2014 the Canadian literacy policy landscape will be altered. One hopes this new landscape will give rise to a strong, vibrant, and effective response to Canada’s literacy and essential skills challenges. ◉


Brigid Hayes is an independent consultant with a strategic planning and policy development practice involving workplace literacy, essential skills, partnership development, research, and evaluation. From 2003 to 2006, Brigid was Director, Labour with the Canadian Labour and Business Centre (CLBC). From 1989 until 2003, Brigid was Program Consultant, National Literacy Secretariat, responsible for the Business-Labour Partnerships. In 2013, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in recognition of significant contributions to Canada and in 2003 the National Adult Literacy Database (NALD) Award for Contributions to Literacy.


  1. Consultation: Literacy and Essential Skills Tools, Annex: Background, Mandate. http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/jobs/les/consultations/ les_tools.shtml. Accessed September 18, 2013.
  2. Ironically, these cuts were announced on Raise-A-Reader Day, a day devoted to literacy awareness.
  3. Since 2007-08, OLES has issued six calls for proposals. For the three fiscal years for which information is available, 195 projects were funded. By comparison, in 1997-98, when grants were the primary transfer method, over 500 projects were funded annually ranging in dollar amount from $10,000 to over $1 million. (Data from author’s personal files and “Riding Report, National Literacy Program, 1997-98”.
  4. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Summative Evaluation of the Adult Learning, Literacy and Essential Skills Program (ALLESP) Terms of Reference. Table 2.1, 2010.
  5. PCI spending can only be deduced by examining the annual EI Monitoring and Assessment Report, as detailed information about PCI projects is not available. This lack of detail as well as the removal from the ESDC website of all but the last two years of the EI Monitoring and Assessment Reports makes it impossible to determine when OLES began to use EI funds.
  6. Canada Employment Insurance Commission (CEIC). 2012 EI Monitoring and Assessment Report. http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/jobs/ei/reports/index.shtml. Accessed October 18, 2013.
  7. Canada Employment Insurance Commission (CEIC). 2012 EI Monitoring and Assessment Report. P. 138.
  8. The pan-Canadian network would focus on improving the labour market outcomes of Canadians through strengthened literacy and essential skills (LES). A call for proposals to form the pan-Canadian network was held in May 2013, but at the time of writing no funding decisions have been announced.
  9. Government of Canada. Jobs Growth and Long-Term Prosperity, Economic Action Plan 2013. March 21, 2013.
  10. Government of Canada. Jobs Growth and Long-Term Prosperity, Economic Action Plan 2013. March 21, 2013.
  11. The Council of the Federation. Canada’s Premiers continue to have concerns with proposed Canada Job Grant. July 25, 2013. http:// www.councilofthefederation.ca/en/latest-news/13-2013/328- canada-s-premiers-continue-to-have-concerns-with-proposedcanada- job-grant. Accessed October 18, 2013.
  12. Forum of Labour Market Ministers. Building Skills Together. September 24, 2013. http://www.councilofthefederation.ca/ en/publications. Accessed October 18, 2013.
  13.  See IALS and Essential Skills in Canadian Literacy Policy and Practice for an overview of how IALSS methodology has influenced policy at the federal, provincial and territorial level.
  14.  Statistics Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada. Skills in Canada: First Results from the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). Chart 4.1, page 55.
  15.  Centre for Literacy http://www.centreforliteracy.qc.ca/ learningevents/institutes. Accessed September 21, 2013.