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Literacy Skills among Canada’s Immigrant Population

May 24, 200724 May 2007

Diversity, immigration and the arts

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This report, based on findings from the 2001 Census and the 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey, highlights how Canada is becoming increasingly diverse, with significant immigration from non-European countries. “Between 1991 and 2000 alone, 2.2 million immigrants were admitted to Canada, the highest number for any decade in the past century”. Recent immigrants are also much less likely than previous immigrants to have English or French as their mother tongue or home language. “In 2001, 61% of the immigrants who came in the 1990s used a non-official language as their primary home language”.

Most recent immigrants are of working age and contribute significantly to labour force growth in Canada. “Immigrants who arrived during the 1990s accounted for about 70 percent of net labour force growth between 1991 and 2001”. Immigration is expected to account for all of Canada’s net labour force growth in the near future.

Recent immigrants have high levels of education: they are “twice as likely as the Canadian-born population to have a university education”. Despite this fact, “the economic performance of immigrants relative to the Canadian-born population has deteriorated”.

Relatively low English or French literacy levels may be a factor in these disappointing labour force results. The 2003 International Adult Literacy and Skills Survey measured the prose, document, numeracy and problem-solving skills of adults in Canada. The tests were conducted in either English or French. The survey found that “immigrants aged 16 to 65 performed significantly below the average for the Canadian-born population in all four domains”. Immigrants in all age groups fared relatively poorly on the tests. In addition, longer-established immigrants did not perform significantly better on the tests than did recent immigrants. Language was a clear factor: “immigrants whose mother tongue was different than the test language had lower average scores in all four domains than did immigrants whose mother tongue was the same as the test language”.

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