Water Cooler: December 2015 : Tools for the Job – Literacy


by Melany Hallam

Question: If you are working, do you have the tools to be able to do your job effectively? Yes / No (take the survey here)

Over a 20-year career, legendary NHL coach Jacques Demers won ‘Coach of the Year’ not once, but twice, and led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993. He also coached NHL teams in Quebec City, Detroit, St. Louis and Tampa Bay, was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and was appointed a Canadian senator – all while not being able to read or write.

Demers spent his entire hockey career hiding the secret of his illiteracy, and it wasn’t until his biography was published in 2005 that it all came out. What a relief it must have been – at the age of 60 – to finally let that stress go and discover that his players didn’t laugh at him, he wouldn’t get fired from his job, his wife wouldn’t leave him and that people the world over still respected him for his many achievements.

Jacques Demers is an amazingly accomplished person, but his story makes me wonder how much easier his life would have been and how much more he could have accomplished (although that part is a bit harder to imagine!) had he not had to spend so much time finding creative ways to convince others that he did, in fact, know how to read and write. Some of the things he did included asking secretaries and publicity people to read letters to him, explaining that his English wasn’t very good (he was fluent in both English and French). When he became a general manager, he hired two ‘assistants’ who essentially did all of the paperwork and managing for him. He even asked his wife to write letters for him – until she became exasperated and he had to admit the truth. Demers came up with all kinds of excuses, and no one but his wife ever found out.

Granted, Demers’ story is an unusual one in that he worked at such a high level without being discovered. But his story is NOT that unusual in the ways that he pretended to be literate when he wasn’t.

And the origins of Demers’ problems are not that unusual either. They started at home with a difficult family life; with a violent father who drank too much and took his anger out on young Jacques and his mother, leaving the boy with little energy for school, and causing him to leave home and a lacklustre education behind at an early age.

Demers managed to overcome his handicap and has since become a role model for others struggling with reading and writing. But many people dealing with illiteracy never learn to either work around the difficulties it creates, or admit they have a problem and get help.

So why am I telling you this story, and what has it got to do with doing your job effectively?

January 27 is Family Literacy Day. Success in life starts at home, either with encouragement or with discouragement. Jacques Demers is a testament to that fact, and he has now told his story many times. Learning to read and write can either help you thrive or it can be a hurdle that you’ll spend your life trying to jump over.

Perhaps you think that illiteracy can’t be such a large problem in Canada today. After all, it’s 2016! But just take a look at these statistics from a 2013 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey:

Over the last 10 years, Canadian literacy rates have dropped: in 2003 we ranked above average compared to other countries, we are now just average

  • Almost 6 in 10 Canadians do not have the desired level of numeracy skills (including the simple addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division skills needed to count change, calculate tips, or understand credit)
  • Canadian youth (16 to 24 years) are under-performing in literacy compared to their young people in other OECD nations
  • 80% of adults (ages 16 to 65) with the highest literacy levels were employed, versus only about 57% of those who are at the lowest literacy levelsLiteracy even affects your health. A recent BC Literacy survey found that 75% of those with high literacy rate themselves as being in excellent or very good health, compared to only 30% of those with low literacy.Have we really made much progress with literacy levels in Canada? You decide.

If any of Jacques Demers’ struggles with literacy sound like they might apply to you (or someone you know), you’re not alone.

Here are some places to get help in Powell River:

Further reading:


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