Skip to main content

How good are Canadians at figuring out a restaurant tip? Or balancing their bank account? Can most comprehend the interest on a mortgage or sort through a spreadsheet?

A new map created by the Canadian Council on Learning reveals huge disparities in numeracy levels between thousands of communities and neighbourhoods, some right next door to each other. Interpretations of its landscape point to huge challenges Canada faces, particularly in the East, to ensure people can thrive personally and handle the jobs that will keep the country competitive.

Numeracy - the ability to use and understand numbers in everyday life - is critical to Canada's future productivity. It affects people's income, holds many new immigrants back from thriving in the workforce and can be elusive to people who live in more remote areas. Evidence also links low general literacy levels to shorter life expectancies, greater health problems and social ills, such as crime and homelessness.

And better numeracy skills, a key part of financial literacy, also help people make better personal decisions, which collectively impact the entire country. The financial crisis of 2008 is often blamed solely on the banking world's irresponsibility, but individual decisions by people struggling to understand their mortgages, or the true cost of a loan or a debt, arguably helped bring world economies to their knees.

The CCL map draws on a landmark survey which suggests that 55 per cent of adult Canadians are lacking in the basic numeracy skills they need to navigate their lives. Canadians fared better than Americans but worse than Scandinavians. Those working in declining industries that require lower levels of education face the stiffest challenges, as they struggle to land new jobs that demand skills they never needed before, such as comfort levels with computers.

The CCL argues that province-wide assessments don't tell the story of the vast disparities within the minute parts of those regions. The patchwork map proves, in their view, that the solutions to improving numeracy will often start at the ground level: workplaces offering training; banks or businesses explaining jargon-heavy concepts better; and local schools and learning centres making their offerings widely known.

"A lot of the impetus for improvement in learning is local. It's individual, it's in the family, it's in the community, and you can't expect the state to do everything," said Paul Cappon, CEO of the Canadian Council on Learning.

The map illustrates the number of Canadians at or below Level 2 numeracy, based on the five-level scale created by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Those at Level 3 or above can function comfortably in a modern, technological economy. But those below will struggle to learn new job skills. To create this picture, the CCL combined 2006 census demographics with data from the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey to colour each of 52,000 neighbourhoods and communities.

When first published, the IALSS served as a wake-up call to those who thought Canadians were mostly numerate enough. The survey also revealed that nearly half of the country struggles with various forms of language literacy. Since then, discussions about how to improve these skills have become more common. Provincial governments have drafted plans to boost numeracy and literacy, and the federal government's Task Force on Financial Literacy recently returned a report with 30 recommendations.

Still, experts continue to disagree about whether Canadians as a whole are more numerate than they were 2003. So are we doing enough to raise the bar?

"We're not taking the right steps because we don't have any goal," Dr. Cappon said. "What's our goal for the next five years? What's the goal for the next 10 years? We should be accountable to ourselves as a country."

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct