FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick Tories are promising to address literacy rates in a province where advocates say about half the population isn't literate enough to fully participate in society.
Campaigning for this month's provincial election, Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs said Thursday the province's literacy rate is an embarrassment.
Nearly 20 per cent of New Brunswick adults have literacy levels below the national average.
"We have too many people unable to participate fully in society because of their low literacy skills," said Linda Homer, executive director of the Literacy Coalition of New Brunswick, estimating that amounts to about half of the adult population.
"We are not only looking at reading the words -- the world has changed and technology has moved in, so we need digital literacy skills, document reading and use, and computers skills. They're all kind of part of that important learning that we need today to function," Homer said.
Recent Canada-wide assessments show that, with the exception of Manitoba, New Brunswick Grade 8 students lag behind their Canadian counterparts in reading.
An international literacy report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2013 found that Canada ranked just above average among 24 participating countries and regions.
Among provinces and territories, Yukon, Alberta, B.C., Ontario, Manitoba, P.E.I. and Nova Scotia were above average among those aged 16 to 65, according to the report. Trailing behind were Quebec, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, the Northwest Territories, Newfoundland and Labrador and, finally, Nunavut.
Higgs is pledging to have 85 per cent of students meet or exceed Grade 2 reading standards by 2022, and that the Grade 2 class of 2022 will be top three in Canada in literacy and math.
He said the Tory plan would include a program to support schools through community mentors, after-school learning and tutoring, and family support programs.
He also said there would be a review of the format for reports cards to ensure they are providing adequate information for students and parents.
Homer said part of the reason for New Brunswick's low scores is its historic dependence on resource sectors like forestry and the fishery.
She said it has been possible for people to spend their entire working career working in a mill or on a boat and get by without developing their skills for reading and writing.
She said the problem occurs when those people become parents and are unable to help their children develop their literacy skills.
"There's a huge impact in our early childhood literacy learning that gives us a lifelong effect. If we don't get a good start early on, then things don't go as well. Parents in the home environment are the most influential factor," she said.
The province's Liberal government has boasted record spending on education, and last year it launched its Comprehensive Literacy Strategy.
The strategy set numerous priorities such as exploring ways to provide learning opportunities beyond the traditional school day, and working with employers to develop adult literacy and skills training.
At the time, Liberal Premier Brian Gallant said the government had spent nearly $2 million to hire more than 35 new literacy leads, and earmarked $7 million per year for literacy programming for children and adults.
But on Thursday, Higgs said there's a need to spend wisely and address specific issues. He said only then would there be results.
"The literacy rate in this province is an embarrassment that we cannot put up with any longer," Higgs said.
Greg Byrne, a Liberal campaign spokesperson, said in a statement Thursday that Higgs is offering targets but no real plan on meeting them.
"What's important to note is that we are making significant investments in education, including investments in literacy. Unlike Blaine Higgs, we believe it is important to make these investments if we want to see real improvements."
Homer said there have been improvements in recent years, but not enough and not quickly enough.
She said she's pleased the political parties are talking about education and specifically about literacy.
"It gives me much hope. I think there's a sincere interest in the recognition of the importance of literacy and how it's tied into our quality of life, economy and health," she said.