AWENS logo

Your Resource Centre for Workplace Education

Literacy in Nova Scotia’s History

Taking Advantage of Onboarding

In 2003, Canada took part in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study: Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL). Nova Scotia at the time, came out with what was deemed ‘mixed reviews’. The OECD reports that Canadian adults ‘do not possess the requisite level of skill’ businesses need to be competitive in the global knowledge economy.  In a report titled, Adult Literacy in Nova Scotia: A Critical Examination of Policies and Their Effects, by Scott MacPhail, at Mount St. Vincent University and Leona M. English at St. Francis Xavier University, presented an overview on the history of Nova Scotia Literacy.

Literacy in Nova Scotia’s History

One needs only to consider the ground-breaking work of Nova Scotia–born Alfred Fitzpatrick, who founded Frontier College (Cook, 1987), a national effort on the railway frontier to educate workers on site, and which exists today in the inner city, again reaching the vulnerable. More memorable yet is the work of Fathers Coady and Tompkins and Sisters Irene Doyle and Dolores Donnelly, who were leaders in the Antigonish Movement’s project of economy and community building in eastern Nova Scotia in the early 20th century (English, 2009; Neal, 1998).

Nova Scotia is also home to Guy Henson, who was involved with the development of the regional library system, which encouraged reading and citizen participation in the life of our communities (Welton & Lecky, 1997). Clearly, Nova Scotians have done a great deal to use adult education as an important tool to improve literacy and strengthen the community. Indeed, literacy in this province has often been championed in the labour movement and through initiatives to empower workers (Frank, 1999; Spencer & Taylor, 2006). Although there is a scarcity of critical research on literacy in Nova Scotia, we know that such direct efforts to reach people at the community level have diminished over time with an increasing trend to supporting higher education (MacPhail & English 2013).

Studies by the Canadian Conference Board of Canada confirms that enhancing literacy levels in the workplace improves performance. It is an opportunity that provides employees with a better chance to move their careers forward. For decades, as reported by MacPhail and English, business owners have known there is value in improving workplace literacy.

When employers invest in providing literacy and essential education to their employees the benefits will move beyond the brick and mortar of the organizations, benefits will take place throughout the local economy and global economy in which we all live. There is an inequitable sequential link between enhancing literacy skills in the workplace and the economic success of the business.  (Conference Board of Canada)

Financial benefits of literacy and essential skills education in the workplace are not only seen on the bottom line of an organization, there are benefits to families and the whole of our communities where we live and work, both rural and urban. This is evident, as the Conference Board of Canada reports, that males with higher literacy skills make an extra $585,000 over their lifetime, females $683,000 over their lifetime.

It is with great pride to be involved in workplace education through the work of AWENS – the Association of Workplace Educators of Nova Scotia(1999), the work our member instructors and our partnership with Nova Scotia Labour and Advanced Education, who in partnership with employers and industry have been working since 1989 to provide the means to support employers with literacy and essential education for their employees. In 2010/11, approximately 160 Workplace Education programs were funded in 80 workplaces throughout Nova Scotia to assist 1900 workers. (Source Nova Scotia Government). In 2016/17, 295 employers provided workplace education, allowing for 4258 persons to attend, through the 1.4 million dollar support of the government.

Employers need to know the story of Pictou, Nova Scotia’s Alfred Fitzpatrick, who was a pioneer in workplace education, when in 1899, he realized the benefits to educating workers, reducing the barriers to improving literacy through adult education in the workplace. His vision was not that of the government, he established the Canadian Reading Camps Association, later known as Frontier College. An institute that has helped educate Canadians in railway camps, lumber woods, city streets and Aboriginal communities, since 1899.  For this reason, Hon. John Hamm, a former premier of Nova Scotia, made the motion for the House to recognize the contribution of Alfred Fitzpatrick and moved forward a resolution naming him as one the great Canadians born and raised in Nova Scotia.

In 1977, UNESCO recognized the Frontier College’s work internationally by awarding it the 1977 Literacy Prize for its “meritorious work in the field of adult education.”

Alfred Fitzpatrick a leader in workplace education, was known across Canada for starting the movement of ‘Labourer-Teacher’ relationships; when the teachers from his college were sent to work alongside the labourers during the day and taught them in the evenings. He believed that all people, including newcomers to Canada had a right to training, to learn the language and the culture they were now a part of.

Reverend Alfred Fitzpatrick, as he was known to many, challenged government and universities to provide the opportunity to learn, no matter the background of the person or where they were in life. He stated in 1920, “Whenever and wherever people shall have occasion to congregate, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.”

To organizations that continue to follow the leadership of Reverend Alfred Fitzpatrick, allowing employees to learn, thank you! For those who have just learned of his work, follow his leadership and bring workplace education to your organization and change the way of work and life.

Blog FooterNancy holds an MBA in Global Leadership and a Diploma in Adult Education. Working in the field of Adult Education for over 25 years, she is dedicated to helping organizations build capacity from within, and insure adult educators receive the professional development they need to be innovative and build success in others.     Nancy believes, by investing in workplace education, everyone wins – the company, the people and the communities in which we live.

LinkedIn Twitter 

Sorry, comments are closed for this post.

Contact Us

3667 Strawberry Hill Street, Suite 106
Halifax, NS B3K 5A8


Phone:  902-406-7440 (tap to call)

Contact Page

Office Hours: M-F 8:30 - 4:30