Investing in Canadians' Civic Literacy

January 30, 2019
min. read
Share on Twitter
Share on Facebook
Share on Linkedin
Copy Link
Investing in Canadians' Civic Literacy
An arrow pointing left
View all of our work

Democracy asks a lot of citizens: it requires them to evaluate and choose among complex options, while still caring as much about the process of decision-making as its outcomes. In a world of distractions—some innocent and some malevolent—democracy asks citizens to get involved in our country’s messy yet vital processes of governance. 

It’s not getting any easier. 

In the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, we have become more aware of the challenges to democracy that the information age brings. We are overwhelmed by huge and unmediated flows of information. Some of that information, moreover, is produced by actors intent on spreading disinformation and undermining the legitimacy of our democratic institutions.

Those challenges, and the approaching 2019 Canadian federal election, have generated lots of discussion about cyber security, the regulation of social media, and the state of media generally—that is, how to manage the supply of information to citizens. But this conversation ultimately concludes that the Internet cannot be fully regulated. Accordingly, Canadian governments and civil society should not overlook the most critically important resource available: the ability of voters themselves to process information. 

The only reliable, evergreen safeguard to the threats that confront us now and in the future is an engaged, informed, discerning, and resilient democratic public. We need collective and comprehensive action to foster civic literacy: the individual-level tools, skills, and knowledge that make democracy work. Being civically literate means knowing about the institutions of government and how they work, having awareness of the issues of the day, understanding how to take political action to pursue a cause, and carefully consuming media both on- and offline. 

At the moment, civic literacy rates are unevenly distributed among Canadians. Citizens with higher socioeconomic status, who have things like more wealth and better education, tend to have higher levels of civic literacy. They have higher levels of democratic participation as well. 

Additionally, there is a large and potentially growing gap between older and younger Canadians in levels of civic literacy and political attentiveness. 

Still other concerns have emerged recently. The decline of traditional media and the rise of social media have resulted in an increase in bad information that citizens must filter. They must ensure the information they receive and rely upon is trustworthy. They must be their own educators, editors, and fact checkers. They must play those roles in a fast-changing informational and political environment. And it’s even harder when the information is deliberately misleading, polarizing, or designed to divide. Canadian citizens are up to the challenge, but they need support. 

Civic literacy isn’t just the domain of in-school “civic education.” It used to be taught and fostered in families, places of worship, social groups, and workplaces. But for many, those sources have become fractured. Indeed, social groups, community groups, and schools can be hesitant to teach civic literacy today for fear of being criticized as being too “political” or “biased.” As such, Canada may be too reliant as a society on the expectation that in-school civic education can successfully equip Canadians to be civically literate for all aspects of life. In fact, civic literacy requires many access points to knowledge and skill building, especially outside of primary and secondary school. However, there are real obstacles to realizing this vision. 

For community groups that want to offer civic literacy outside of school settings, the risks are high: they are concerned about increasing the division between their members or being accused of advocacy. Additionally, they have a very difficult time funding civic literacy programs, as funding often comes and goes with individual leaders of foundations and governments. 

The program landscape for building civic literacy is also scattered. Too few initiatives—whether public or private—focus squarely on the complex challenges associated with helping citizens to become and remain civically literate. Projects often appear and then disappear due to lack of financial and institutional support and seldom get a rigorous evaluation before they wrap up. This makes it difficult to develop a strong body of evidence for what actually works. 

Our civic literacy deficit is not a new problem, but there is new urgency to fix it. This is a shared project. Canada’s non-partisan civil society should take the lead on programming, but there is a critical role for governments to play—to ensure civic education happens in the first place, is sustained, reaches the communities that need it, and is founded in evidence.

Read the Full ReportRead the Full Report

Explore our work

Explore Our Work

No items found.