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About RBC > Media Newsroom > Speeches > Starts with kids and ideally never stops: Literacy, Sustainability and Community Development

Starts with kids and ideally never stops: Literacy, Sustainability and Community Development

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Charlie Coffey, O.C.
Executive Vice President
Government Affairs & Business Development
RBC Financial Group
Literacy Forum in Mission
Best Western Mission City Lodge
Mission, British Columbia

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Rhian, thank you again for the wonderful introduction and warm welcome. It's great to be in Mission tonight - "to be nestled in the rugged Coast Mountains across the Fraser River, so named after the first and largest mission in the Pacific Northwest, the Roman Catholic St. Mary's Indian Mission, founded in 1861." There's important First Nations history in your community.

Before we get started, I want to tell you about an award winning book Rhian recommended in January for Family Literacy Day (or any day for that matter) called "Hana's Suitcase: a True Story" by Karen Levine. As you may know, this captivating book is about Japanese children, visiting a Holocaust Centre in Tokyo, who are intrigued by a suitcase inscribed with the name Hana Brady. The curator of the Centre resolves to find out "what happened to Hana" for the children and travels to Europe on a search that eventually leads her to Canada. I must say that the book and backdrop to the story made me reflect on two things: 1) literacy is a human right…it bears repeating, literacy is a human right — and this means every child should be able to read "Hana's Suitcase" in any language; and 2) the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, to be built in Winnipeg, may be able to help keep Hana's story alive for millions of children (and grown-ups) around the globe.

When Rhian invited me to join you this evening, I was delighted to hear that the Mission AM and Mission Midday Rotary Clubs are involved in an event about literacy, sustainability and community development, the focus of my remarks. Obviously Rotarians "get it" when it comes to pushing the envelope on literacy. After watching the marvelous video, I want to commend Brenda and the Literacy Now team for such a superb effort. Literacy truly is all about learning and community development. Literacy truly is the ability to engage the world in ways that matter to you. And literacy truly starts with kids and ideally never stops. It's simply smart thinking for Literacy Now to be part of the 2010 Legacies Now action plan! I'm not surprised that this organization also supports community events like this one.

The literacy link to the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games has not gone unnoticed by RBC, who was chosen by the Vancouver Organizing Committee as the premier national partner for banking. We believe in the Olympic Games because they demonstrate excellence, leadership and diversity - the same values to which we aspire. And we also believe the Games will benefit all of Canada from the perspective of economics, education, sustainability, cultural activity, and tourism. RBC supports legacies' programs - and that's why we're huge fans of what this province - your community - is doing to advance literacy and learning, Now.

As the video suggests, research shows that improved literacy pays off in economic activity, productivity, lower health care costs, better outcomes for children and safer, more cohesive communities. There's more statistics and research from the Movement for Canadian Literacy that's worth a closer look:

  • "Statistics Canada reports that more than 7 million Canadian adults can barely read and comprehend simple printed materials and that over 25 per cent of Canadian high school graduates lack the literacy skills needed for entry level jobs, and experience difficulties when reading even simple texts for comprehension."

  • "Over 10 million Canadians are working at marginal or modest levels of literacy. This represents a massive loss of productivity for individuals, for society and for our economy especially as we enter a future where knowledge and adaptability will be essential."

  • "Canada's Aboriginal population was not factored into the Canadian figures for the International Adult Literacy Survey conducted in 1994/96. This study revealed that almost 50% of Canadian adults can't work well with words and numbers. The reality is that Canada's Aboriginal peoples have even lower literacy rates. This disadvantage is compounded by the inter-connectedness of literacy to poverty, poor health, high unemployment and crime rates."

    As a footnote…in May, "the first results from the Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey, which measured literacy and numeracy skills among individuals, aged 16 to 65 in Canada and six other countries in 2003, showed that there was little change in the average literacy scores of working-age Canadians since the 1994 International Adult Literacy Survey."

  • "Literacy development is strongly influenced in the early years by a child's family environment and the educational background of parents."

  • "The higher a nation's literacy skills the more likely its population is to have healthier habits and lifestyles."

  • "Those with higher literacy skills tend to be more involved citizens who participate in their communities and in society."

  • "Adult language and literacy skills are built on the foundation of language skills, which are acquired over the first dozen years of life. When children are unable to develop good language and literacy skills, they ultimately suffer profound and enduring consequences - including poor psycho-social development, academic failure leading to reduced employment opportunities, and an overall reduced sense of well-being."

This is a call to literacy action. Governments, business and communities have a critical leadership role to play in changing the Canadian literacy landscape. In addition to the work of Literacy Now, what's happening across the country and right here in Mission to help address this priority issue?

  • "Did you know about the new national partnership between the Canadian Child Care Federation and the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network that will see the development and distribution of a language and literacy resource kit to 15,000 Canadian early learning and child care practitioners by August 2007? This announcement was made on November 21st by The Honourable Ken Dryden, Minister of Social Development Canada. "Those who work with young children on a daily basis can have a significant impact on learning, so they need evidence about what works and why," said Dr. Don Jamieson, scientific director and CEO of the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. This is good news for literacy…

  • Another footnote here…this partnership was announced in celebration of National Child Day, a day that also commemorates two historic events for children - the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Children in 1959, and the UN adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989. "On November 19, Save the Children Canada announced the results of a study undertaken with Ipsos-Reid to explore Canadians' awareness and understanding of the implications of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The poll shows that the majority of Canadians call for the appointment of an independent federal ombudsperson to monitor and protect children's rights." After all, literacy is a human right…

  • "Did you know that "on November 25, 2005, The Honourable Claudette Bradshaw, Minister of State (Human Resources Development), welcomed Towards a Fully Literate Canada - Achieving National Goals through a Comprehensive Pan-Canadian Literacy Strategy, the report of her Advisory Committee on Literacy and Essential Skills. The advisory committee was composed of 19 representatives from the learning, business, labour, voluntary, aboriginal and francophone literacy communities. The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the literacy challenges facing Canadians from both an economic and social perspective, as well as recommendations in support of a pan-Canadian strategy and related activities aimed at raising the literacy and essential skills levels of Canadians. In Budget 2005, the Government of Canada committed to work with partners on the development of a pan-Canadian strategy on literacy and essential skills, and as an initial step, announced an additional $30 million over three years for the National Literacy Secretariat." This is also good news for literacy…

  • "Did you know that again on November 25th (and for the first time), literacy and numeracy educators from across the country gathered together "to find the best approaches to give every student the opportunity to reach his or her full potential", in a forum called Unlocking Our Children's Potential: Literacy and Numeracy as a Foundation, presented by The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada and hosted by the Ontario Ministry of Education's Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. "In the fall of 2004, education ministers identified literacy as a priority in recognition of the key role it plays in the well being of Canadians," said Shirley Bond, Education Minister for British Columbia. "This forum is the first of two that will bring together literacy experts and education partners to discuss and share best practices and the latest research on literacy." More good news for literacy…

  • "And there's more good news at least for western Canada…according to a Globe and Mail article on November 10th (based on a Statscan report released the day before), "the West is best on literacy, numbers…and adults in Yukon, B.C., Saskatchewan and Alberta fare better than those in the East." The piece, by Jill Mahoney, goes on to say: "The provincial and territorial rankings, which are from an international survey that previously found 42 per cent of adult Canadians cannot meet most everyday reading and numeracy requirements, indicate Canadians generally fare better the farther west they live. On prose and problem-solving, people in Yukon and Saskatchewan scored higher on the test than those in Norway, the country that placed first over all. The test was taken by adults in six countries, including 23,000 Canadians, in 2003."

At home in British Columbia…your provincial government announced it would "provide $1.34 million for 50 adult literacy programs including new and continuing programs affecting more then 4,900 people in numerous communities across BC." Right here, the Mission Literacy Association has been a huge influence in the community over a number of years, with accomplishments that include: Books for Babies, the Riot of Reading annual event, Reading Buddies and adult tutoring with volunteers. The Rotary Club has sponsored the start up of 'Books for Breakfast' carried out by the School District. Books are regularly donated to the Family Place and the aboriginal Family Place. And a special book was produced for the Headstart program, while dual language books were bought for the Punjabi population. As I look around this room and applaud your achievements, there's a great deal to be proud of, yet still much work to be done in communities from coast to coast. All one has to do is absorb the research, step outside our comfort zone and read editorials like the one in the November 24th edition of the National Post, "The high cost of immigrant illiteracy" to come to grips with the fact that literacy is a journey, not a destination.

And this is just one more reason why business must continue to step up to the literacy support plate (and in greater numbers too), especially in terms of partnerships and sharing knowledge. There's a lot riding on literacy in the corporate community. CanWest Global gets with the program through its annual Raise-a-Reader campaign - a "unique project based on a model created in 1997 by the Vancouver Sun, to increase awareness and raise money for children's literacy programs in British Columbia."

On this note, I'm delighted to say that for the fifth consecutive year, RBC supports the B.C. Library Association's Summer Reading Club, a province-wide program that encourages children to read throughout the summer. We take special pride in providing medals for the children who have successfully read a number of books in the Club that's organized by the public libraries. It's great to know that the RBC team is also on the push for literacy team.

"The United Nations Literacy Decade (2003-2012) aims to extend the use of literacy to those who do not currently have access to it. Over 861 million adults are in that position (two thirds of these people are women) and over 113 million children are not in school and therefore not gaining access to literacy either. Literacy efforts have so far failed to reach the poorest and most marginalized groups of people - the Decade will particularly address such populations, under the banner of Literacy for all: voice for all, learning for all."

There's no doubt that the Literacy Decade is part of a wider spectrum of international work in education and development, with literacy promotion being the heart of its goals. Since literacy is also being promoted on both provincial and national fronts in Canada, it will be interesting to see how the literacy profile unfolds during the federal election campaign…and ultimately whether promises made are promises kept, regardless of the standings in the House of Commons or the governing Party.

Four days after our federal election, Canada will mark ABC CANADA Family Literacy Day, a national initiative that promotes the importance of reading and learning together as a family. "Every year, on January 27, families and communities across Canada celebrate this special day at literacy-themed events coordinated by literacy organizations, schools and libraries." And speaking of libraries, special thanks to Rhian of the Coquitlam Library (who wears her Rotarian and library hat tonight), for helping to organize this evening.

In closing, literacy, sustainability and community development can be likened to a learning partnership that starts with kids and ideally never stops. I'm convinced that the essence of our literacy journey is leadership…and in the words of scientist John C. Polanyi: "Anybody who can do so much as read, has an obligation to those who cannot"! Let's make Family Literacy Day every day in Mission, British Columbia and Canada!

Thanks very much…now let's hear from you.