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Financial literacy across Canada - the dream unfolds.

by:
Laurie Campbell

Dare to dream, someone once said. And we have.

Just as it was Credit Canada’s vision four years ago to create a national event around financial literacy in the form of the now celebrated Credit Education Week, so too was it our hope back then that a national strategy surrounding the issue would be established through the collaborative efforts of public and private sector partners, as well as through Canadians at large.

This past week the dream for that strategy became a reality as Canada's Task Force on Financial Literacy – on which I served as a member - made public its report to the federal Minister of Finance, who launched the Task Force in June, 2009. More than simply identifying the need for action in support of financial literacy, the report clearly spells out the steps Canadians need to take to improve our personal financial know-how and thereby make our nation (not to mention our households) stronger and more prosperous.

The Task Force – consisting of members drawn from the business and education sectors, community organizations and academia – devoted more than a year to studying financial literacy. Our work took us to every province and territory in the land. Through public sessions, we met with hundreds of organizations and individual Canadians from every walk of life, and received more than 300 submissions as well as hundreds more comments through an online forum.

I dare say the feedback and counsel that flowed from the study exceeded our expectations at Credit Canada. No less than 30 substantive recommendations followed from the Task Force’s findings, and I am delighted to be able to discuss some of them with you now. Of course, I can’t address the raft of specifics here – I urge you to visit http://www.financialliteracyincanada.com for the full report - but I can touch on key elements.

• A base to champion the cause and lead the way.

Firstly, the report recommends that Canada establish a base for championing the cause of financial literacy, and for overseeing nation-wide programs and initiatives relating to financial education. An appointed leader would report directly to the Minister of Finance with a clear mandate to work collaboratively with various levels of government and other stakeholders. At the same time, qualified individuals from government, the private sector, the non-profit sector, and the public would form a body to identify opportunities, implement initiatives and monitor results.

• Formal programs for financial education in our schools. 

Most exciting to all of us at Credit Canada – since we have always been champions of school-based instruction in matters of money – is the report’s recommendation to formalize programs for financial literacy within our educational institutions, from elementary to post-secondary levels of instruction, and even including adult continuing education. In recent times, we’ve seen some effort by provinces to include financial literacy programs within the curriculum, but there is still so much more to do.

• Workplace programs and extended programs.

Schools are not the only places targeted for action, though. The national strategy is comprehensive. It further recommends that employers incorporate financial literacy training into their current workplace training programs and communications. To this end, the Government of Canada - along with regional governments – could make workplace financial literacy programs eligible for tax assistance.

• An ongoing public awareness campaign.

Of course, what would a pervasive new strategy be without a broad base of public awareness concerning goals and objectives? Here, the Task Force recommends that the Government of Canada, in partnership with various stakeholders, carry out a comprehensive and ongoing public awareness campaign to promote consciousness of the need for financial literacy. As well, awareness of issues involving financial fraud would fold into the process.

• Honouring achievement through awards of excellence.

Meanwhile, recommendations of the report that are particularly close to my heart concern programs for recognizing excellence within the whole field of financial education and training. As we discovered on the Task Force, currently very few national awards recognize educators or organizations engaged in financial instruction. Public feedback suggested the creation of “Financial Literacy Champions” awards to boost the profile of financial literacy issues in communities, promote best practices and reward hard work.

• A vision for the long term. 

I do not hesitate to say that the Task Force’s recommendations are visionary thanks to all who participated in this splendid exercise. The steps outlined here - which as I say highlight only some key elements of the Task Force’s report - are designed to address long-term challenges. Naturally, sustained research and monitoring of programs have been proposed to ensure Canadians proceed wisely and effectively as time goes on.

Nothing is yet set in stone, but through this whole process, Canada has made a giant leap forward in learning what is needed to address educational issues of pressing economic importance to us all. A nation is only as strong and as smart as its people, and we know from recent news that many Canadians could be much smarter in relation to the way they handle money and understand its dynamics.

• The time for action is now.

We need only to remind ourselves that this past year, consumer debt loads reached the unprecedented ratio of 1.48 for every dollar that Canadians make. The average debt for about 24.8 million citizens - excluding mortgages - rose to over $25,183. This represents the highest personal debt level in our country’s history.  As Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said last December, borrowing has entered “uncharted territory.” Risks associated with household debt are something ``we all have to take seriously.’’ By acting on the recommendations proposed through the Federal Task Force on Financial Literacy, we can demonstrate that we are taking personal financial matters very seriously in Canada. I believe the outcome of such action will be very positive indeed.

Now, speaking of serious matters, I would like to take this opportunity to sincerely thank the Minister of Finance for inviting me to participate in the Task Force. The Minister, the Prime Minister and the Government of Canada deserve the highest praise for getting behind financial literacy and this most worthwhile initiative. It was an honour to serve, and it was a learning experience for me, too. I could not have dreamed about a better outcome.

Topics: Financial Literacy, CEWC

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