Maybe Mr. Ignatieff is Talking About the Wrong Thing?

Federal Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was in Moncton on Monday, talking about economic challenges and - our provincial paper notes - the need for a "Plan To Boost Literacy."

Though New Brunswickers have learned to view Telegraph-Journal headlines featuring the terms "literacy" or "illiteracy" with a jaded eye, this story caught my attention.

According to the CBC (a couple of weeks back), in 2009, Moncton lost more than 5,000 jobs. Now, here's Mr. Ignatieff explaining that (quoting from Tuesday's front page), "low literacy levels can cause both labour shortages and high unemployment at the same time."

Put those two things together, and you see an ominous picture begin to take shape.

Somehow, in 2009, more than 5,000 Moncton adults experienced a decrease in their literacy skills severe enough to cost them their jobs! That's more than a dozen people a day becoming under-literate!!


Do you suppose it's deliberate? Is someone stalking the streets with a mallet, thumping men and women in the superior temporal gyrus rendering it, er, an inferior temporal gyrus?

Or is it environmental? I know they've had some water troubles in Moncton. What's the air quality like? We know air-borne toxins can inhibit literacy acquisition in children. Are we seeing evidence of creeping lead or mercury poisoning among adults?

Sadly, the newspaper reporter missed this connection altogether. Instead, the reporter got distracted by Ignatieff's call for "a national strategy on learning."

(Here, readers of this blog might wonder what happened to the Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network's national strategy or the national Literacy Action Plan put forward by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) or the CCL's national strategy. I wonder too.)

Mr. Ignatieff continued: "People say to me, 'but that's not a federal responsibility, education is provincial,' ...But this is about national leadership and national strategy." Which is, of course, no answer at all. Federal politicians declaring their intention to be all leaderly and usurp provincial responsibilities are apt to get a poke in the nose in this neck of the Canadian woods.

But let's get back to the real story - those lost jobs.

There's an exercise in Issue 2 of the Learning Edge I go through with my learners every once in a while.

For those who don't know, the Learning Edge is a multimedia learning tool dressed up like an online newsletter. It's hosted by - and maybe the product of - Wellington County Learning Center, an Ontario outfit tucked snugly between lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron. They also produced the excellent driver's handbook The Road Ahead. One day, I'm going up there to meet these very smart people.

Anyway, back to Issue Two. In a story titled "Who's running?" we learn about the break-out of costs for a typical pair of sneakers sold in Canada: an $80 pair of brand name shoes made in Indonesia. What we discover is that half or 50% of that $80 goes to the shoe store to meet their overhead, wage costs and profit. The shoe company itself takes 33%. Shipping and taxes eat up 5%, leaving 12% for the shoe factory itself.

Let me say that again, the shoe factory, in a "developing" nation, accounts for 12% of the cost, while the "developed world" shoe store accounts for 50% of the cost.

Why? Why does selling the shoe in Canada cost 4 times as much as making the shoe in Indonesia?

Well, probably because Canadian workers earn 4 times as much as Indonesian workers. Also, and this is just a guess, the shoe store's contribution to social programs like employment insurance, health care, worker's compensation, or to infrastructure needs like highways, powerlines and municipal water systems, is much greater here in Canada. Thus, it's cheaper to manufacture things in Indonesia.

(Here I'd call attention to the explanatory phrase"increasing cost of manpower and its regulations in China" in the recent article pictured above.)

Does Indonesia have a literacy problem? I don't know. It's none of my business. Does Indonesia have 4 times Canada's productivity because its population is 4 times better trained? It seems unlikely. Have Moncton jobs been relocated to Indonesia? Probably not.

Still. Before we can take seriously the claim that Canada or New Brunswick or Moncton is losing jobs - losing out in the global marketplace - because of low literacy, we had best look at some basic economic facts like where our imports are coming from, and what the wage and taxation structures are like in those countries.

In a marketplace, we face competition, and the crew with the lowest costs often wins out. In Canada, we don't want poverty wages, environmental degradation, under-funded health and education services, or sub-standard infrastructure. But we're competing with (and foolishly buying products from) nations that do have all those things. That's been the challenge since about 1970.

So, Mr. Ignatieff, let's not change the constitution just yet. Instead, as a member of parliament, you might work on something that is clearly a federal responsibility: a plan to stop cheap imports from countries that pay and treat their workers and environment in ways that would be illegal here.

Yes, some residents of Moncton have difficulties with literacy in one or another of our languages. There are some people and groups working to help them. I'm thinking of the Moncton Regional Learning Council, or Frontier College in Moncton or Moncton Youth Residences Inc., or the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, Moncton. Mr. Ignatieff, you might spend some time with these folks next time you're down east. You might listen for a bit.

Then you might start, very carefully, to think about how both levels of government can support this work.

But really, it's the jobs that are crucial. I can help someone improve their reading or writing or math. But I can't give them a job.

Oh, and p.s.: nevermind saying "the colleges have to step up, the universities have to step up," because it would be better if they just stayed out of everybody's hair and away from our slender sources of funding for non-profits.*


*I appreciate that the New Brunswick Community College, Moncton has accessed literacy funds to create an "Assessment and Evaluation of Diagnostic Tools Used in Literacy and Adult Basic Education" and that near-by New Brunswick Community College, Dieppe, used literacy money to develop "instructional materials for Francophone adults with very weak mathematics skills who are registered in literacy classes in the New Brunswick Community Academic Services Program (CASP)" but we already had those things, and, anyway, making up tools isn't quite the same as actually doing the work of helping adult learners.

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