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Literacy and Civic Engagement: The Key to Getting Involved

Feb. 07 2024

What is Civic Engagement?

Civic engagement is vital for democracy and for communities of all sizes to work well. In general, civics refers to a sense of commitment to where you live. Often, people mean voting and the other rights and duties of a country’s adult citizens when they talk about civic engagement. There are many aspects of civic engagement that include everyone who lives in Canada.

Being an active member of your city or town, province or territory, and country takes many forms. Some ways for people of all ages to take part in civic life include:

  • Volunteering for a charitable organization,

  • Reducing, reusing, and recycling,

  • Creating or signing a petition (some petitions have an age limit for a signature to be valid),

  • Engaging in peaceful protest, demonstration, or boycotting,

  • Working with others to solve a problem in your community,

  • Contacting media or political officials to express your views,

  • Joining groups and associations that reflect your beliefs and priorities.

For adults (18+) with Canadian citizenship, civic engagement also includes:

  • Voting in municipal, provincial, and federal elections. Elections determine who represents the people of a town or city, province, or the whole country. Other elected positions include school trustees. Trustees work with public school boards to make decisions for local schools.

  • Volunteering at a voting station or with the political party that best reflects your beliefs.

  • Running for political office, including city/town counsel, mayor, or Member of Parliament.

Why is Civics Important?

Civics is important for people to connect to the world around them and have a voice in matters that affect them. Simple tasks like putting litter in its place or composting food waste are things we do every day. These small acts show that we care about the environment and want our neighbourhoods to be clean and safe.

Sometimes elections take place. This means people run to represent the goals and priorities of other people in their region. In Canada, there are three levels of government: federal, provincial, and municipal. Each level has different responsibilities. The role of the elected official is to make decisions based on what they believe is right for the people.

Understanding the issues and priorities for each level of government is important. When people understand what a candidate stands for, their vote reflects their values. Voting by name recognition alone may mean voting for a person who doesn't share your beliefs. While the person you vote for may not win the election, it's important to support your preferred candidate and make your voice heard.

Literacy and Civic Life: The Connection

Literacy connects to civic engagement in many ways. Strong literacy skills make it easier to access and interpret information. They help to filter the facts from the fake news. Knowing what people believe in—and what they will do if they’re in office—makes it easier to make an informed decision on election day. Reading a range of sources and perspectives gives a more meaningful understanding than listening to or watching only one. It's important for sources to be fact checked and legitimate. Understanding the difference between fact and opinion as well as bias is important.

People with a higher level of education are more likely to be civically engaged. They feel more confident to speak up for change, take part in elections, and run for public office. Democracy is healthiest when everyone gets involved. This is why United for Literacy’s free literacy programs make our country stronger.

Civic education offered by United for Literacy

Free literacy programs give people access to civic life. United for Literacy’s adult programs include information about civics and other basic skills that improve daily life. One example of the civic education offered by United for Literacy is the Independent Studies program in Toronto. Independent Studies is a program for adults with developmental disabilities. In this program, people learn literacy and self-management skills. Before elections, learners learn where to find out information about the candidates and how to vote. They then hold mock elections to prepare for the experience of voting.

Knowing more about the election gives me more confidence to vote. The more you know about an election, the more likely you’ll take part. More people [voting] makes the election fairer.
– Learner, Independent Studies, United for Literacy

The Community Literacy catalyst program is another way we support community involvement. Community Literacy Catalysts (CLCs) are Indigenous people hired, trained, and mentored by United for Literacy. They create community-driven programs that integrate Indigenous cultures and languages in literacy development. Their work strengthens the community and builds local capacity.

“The Band was exploring the idea of building an outdoor learning centre and had opened the plans up to the community for feedback. [The CLC] wanted to get her reading group involved, and so she brought this group of youth and adults to the architect to talk to him directly. They shared their thoughts, ideas, and feelings on how the learning centre should be created, and the feedback was well received. Not only has [the CLC] supported the group in expressing their voice on the future of their community, but also now the group members will be more likely to participate in the use of the centre, since they were a part of its creation.”
– CLC Project Coordinator, British Columbia

Literacy is at the centre of a fair and prosperous society. It’s important for governments to create policies and practices that encourage participation. This means collaborating with community services, employers, and others.

To find out more, read our 2019 discussion paper on Literacy and Civic Engagement. To learn more about voting and elections, go to Elections Canada.
Donate to United for Literacy to support literacy programs that build stronger communities.

- Joanne Huffa: LinkedIn


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