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What could lead people to say such things as, “I can physically, like on every level, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, feel myself changing and transforming,” and “my peers, they see a difference, they see me more open and, you know, thinking about future endeavours and what I want to do”?

These are the voices of adult learners working to earn their mature high school diploma in Adult Learning Centres in Manitoba, as portrayed in Kevin Nikkel’s documentary short film, Live and Learn, supported by the Manitoba Research Alliance. To make the short film, which premiered at the April 19, 2024 Adult Secondary Education Council (ASEC) conference in Winnipeg, Nikkel interviewed 34 adult learners and 14 teachers in Adult Learning Centres at 12 different sites in northern Manitoba, southern Manitoba, Portage la Prairie, Brandon and Winnipeg. 

Many people in Manitoba do not complete high school at the typical age of 18. An adult learner opens the film saying, “I was surprised at the number of my friends that had not completed their high school education.” 

One might ask, why would this be? The reasons are many. “Everybody has their own reasons for not finishing school,” says one adult learner in the film. “You’re young when you’re in high school, for one thing, and your interest is more, not being in school.” Said another, “My mom was sick at the time, there was a lot of family problems going on, so when I got to grade 12 I was just like, no, I’m not doing this.” Another said, “I grew up with a Dad who didn’t finish school, so that was my outlook, didn’t have to finish it, didn’t need it.” A man speaks for many when he says, “high school was kind of rough for me.” 

Adult basic education includes the Adult Learning Centres (ALCs) that offer the mature high school diploma, and the Adult Literacy Programs (ALPs) that bring adults’ literacy and numeracy skills up to high school entry level. Some ALCs have long wait lists of people wanting to earn their mature high school diploma. Literacy programs are needed because, according to the last count that I am aware of that was done ten years ago, 192,600 Manitobans between the ages of 18 and 65 had literacy levels so low they were unable to participate fully in society.

Many Manitoba adults who want to complete high school to get a decent job and support their families are being denied this opportunity because governments have, for decades, flatlined funding for adult basic education.

It may be that, with the election of a new provincial government, adult basic education’s time in Manitoba has finally come. Premier Wab Kinew spoke publicly about its important role in moving people into the paid labour force. The Adult Literacy Act and the Manitoba Assistance Amendment Act became law on June 3, 2024. The latter enables people on Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) to pursue adult basic education and still receive benefits. This is an important step forward. The Adult Literacy Act requires that an Adult Literacy Strategy be developed—another important step forward. 

However, the 2024 provincial budget is a disappointment.

Funding for adult basic education is to grow by less than 5 percent, when what is being called for, and what is needed, is a doubling of the $20 million budget. This means adult basic education is still education’s poor cousin. Both K-12 and post-secondary education get far more per student; the cost of keeping a person in prison is far more than the per student allocation to adult basic education. 

Success rates in ALCs are high but are limited because of many years of cuts to funding. In 2019/20, the latest year for which annual reports are available, 922 adults graduated from ALCs, and unofficial reports are that approximately 1100 earned their mature high school diploma last year. In years past these numbers were higher—1254 graduates in 2003/04, two decades ago, for example—but frozen budgets have limited the number of graduates.

Investments in adult basic education will have positive impacts for adult learners. 

Many go back to an Adult Learning Centre later in life to earn their high school diploma and to create a better life for themselves and their families. “Having my daughter, I think, is what made me change and realize I needed to go back to school,” said a young mother. A man added, “I have a little girl, and one day we were sitting there watching TV and she asked me, ‘Daddy, what does that say?’ And I couldn’t, I couldn’t read it, you know.” Finding a decent job is another incentive.  Said an Indigenous man, “Every time I try to apply for a job on my reserve, or anywhere else, I need grade 12 they always say.”

Importantly, Indigenous people are enrolled in adult basic education at a rate roughly two and a half times their share of Manitoba’s population. This makes adult basic education a part of the process of reconciliation, as well as an important anti-poverty measure.

Most of those who graduate with their mature high school diploma will either join the labour force immediately or take training to further improve their skills and then enter the labour force. Manitoba needs workers. Workers pay taxes. Investing properly in adult basic education would be paid back over time in increased tax revenues.

A plan exists that would build here in Manitoba the best adult education system in Canada (see source below). The plan is based on extensive consultations with the Directors of ALCs and ALPs in all parts of the province. The benefits would be substantial, the costs minimal.

Credit is due to the new government for a renewed Adult Literacy Act and for the Manitoba Assistance Amendment Act that enables those on social assistance to improve their education while continuing to receive benefits, something that was previously not allowed. But bringing down a budget that increases adult basic education by a mere 5 percent is simply inadequate after decades of flatlined budgets that have meant constant cuts in real terms. If real problems are going to be solved, and if Manitobans’ real potential is going to be realized, this government is going to have to invest much more aggressively in adult basic education.

For those adults who have the courage and the determination, given the chance through increased provincial investments, choosing to pursue the mature high school diploma can produce remarkable results. One student after another in Kevin Nikkel’s Live and Learn tells us about the growth in their self-esteem and self-confidence, about the pride they feel in turning their lives around, and about how happy they feel now compared to their lives before adult education. 

A particularly poignant example is the young woman who says, fighting back tears, “I’m very proud of myself…. It’s like, life changing. I never thought I’d be able to pursue my actual dream of becoming a nurse, but I’m actually only a few months away from applying and I didn’t ever think I would get here.” 

We will all benefit when she becomes a nurse. 

Jim Silver is Professor Emeritus at the University of Winnipeg and a Research Associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba. He is the author oBuilding the Best Adult Education System in Canada: A Roadmap and Action Plan for Manitoba.

Kevin Nikkel is a writer, producer, director in Winnipeg, Manitoba with Five Door Films. He is also an adult education. His film Live and Learn can be viewed on CCPA Manitoba’s Youtube channel or below:

Grant: Community-Driven Solutions to Poverty: Challenges and Possibilities - 2020-2027
Category: Education, Training, and Capacity Building