2017 Event highlights for the National Conference on Financial Literacy

From: Financial Consumer Agency of Canada

The National Conference on Financial Literacy is one of the largest gatherings of its kind in Canada. Organized by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC), this event has been held every three years since 2005 to bring together public, private and not-for-profit sector organizations and stakeholders working in the field of financial literacy.  This report synthesizes the main themes and ideas that emerged from the 2017 conference, held in Montreal, Quebec from November 1 to 3. 

Reflection from the hosts

Reflecting on FCAC’s 2017 National Conference on Financial Literacy, we can sum it all up with the words, “We’re well on our way.”

While our most recent event was a significant stand-alone success in the eyes of over 300 people who joined us in Montreal, from our vantage point at the Agency we see the inroads we’ve made together since hosting our first such conference over a decade ago. 

During the early years, our community of financial literacy champions and partners first convened to discuss the problem and began mapping out the direction for Canada’s financial literacy journey. In the following years, we met to build connections, refine our approaches, share early learnings and collaboratively navigate this often daunting, evolving landscape. It’s incredible how far we’ve come.

Everything counts

This year, we heard about many impressive programs from coast to coast. It’s obvious that the level of real, on-the-ground action has multiplied. Under our overarching conference theme of Reporting on Progress, Building the Future: Everything Counts, we saw plenty of evidence that our individual and combined efforts are making an impact on financial behaviour.

Without a doubt, the credit for this progress lies with all of us working together. This committed community of individuals, non-profits, governments and businesses is focused on strengthening financial literacy – through grass roots programming, ground-breaking research, awareness-raising campaigns, and providing critical funding.

As the hosts, we were honoured that conference attendees gave the event high marks all around. Based on the feedback provided, a few outcomes stood out for us: delegates said that they left better informed, more connected with others in the field, and were inspired to take action or continue doing so.

Lasting behavioural change takes time

That level of enthusiasm is extremely important since, while we may be well on our way, we are certainly not near our end goal. Behaviour change isn’t easy; it takes time and it requires a variety of interventions. There is no shortage of work to do. But based on the stories of program success, our financial literacy community is rising to this long-term challenge with vigor and results!

It’s also encouraging that program measurement and effectiveness – another key conference theme – was demonstrated repeatedly during the gathering. We are increasingly focused on tracking and measuring the impact of our work. Are the many programs changing outcomes, helping people take better care of their money, and making them feel more confident and empowered? The fact that these questions are top of mind suggests a real maturity and evolution of our efforts.

Our event has always been more than a forum for different perspectives. It is a movement for real change in Canada. Looking ahead, we can build on our collective breakthroughs and confidently explore new financial literacy horizons. With the National Strategy for Financial Literacy in place, and the spirit of excitement, experimentation and evaluation demonstrated at our 2017 conference, our financial literacy community is well on its way to making a meaningful, long-term impact on the financial well-being of all Canadians.

“Together, we have created a truly powerful movement for financial literacy. With more than 530 organizations synchronizing their efforts through financial literacy networks, and many other groups and individuals working to realize the goals of the National Strategy for Financial Literacy, we are well on our way to effecting lasting change in Canada.”

Lucie M.A. Tedesco, Commissioner

Jane Rooney,Financial Literacy Leader

National Conference on Financial Literacy infographic. Description below.
Text version: infographic

The infographic shows some results from the 2017 National Conference on Financial Literacy.

324 particpants attended the Conference

Over 170 organizations represented

Attendees by organization type:

  • 28 Non-profit
  • 45 Academia
  • 66 Financial services
  • 66 Government/Regulators
  • 119 Private

89% rated the as excellent or very good.*

90% rated the quality of the speakers as excellent or very good.*

95 % found that the showcase provided value to the event.*

*Based on attendees who responded to FCAC's post-conference survey

As a result of attending this conference, did you:

  • 41% expand your knowledge of financial best pratcices internationally? 
  • 64% learn new ideas/techniques for reaching and engaging your target groups?
  • 74% improve your knowledge of financial literacy best practices by stakeholders in Canada?
  • 77% Expand your network?

Key themes & takeaways

Based on topics covered by presenters and issues raised by delegates, a number of themes and discussion points recurred during the conference.

The power of research: Shaping better interventions

“Data is magical,” mused Andreas Souvaliotis from Carrot Insights. It’s a sentiment that captures what many presenters and delegates emphasized: just how critical research is for driving better financial literacy outcomes. Financial literacy research is a budding field, and we’re seeing ever-more sophisticated techniques and studies targeting specific issues and evolving challenges. Such research is unearthing profound insights and clues, which some organizations and practitioners are translating into tangible improvements in the design and delivery of financial literacy interventions.

While stakeholders across sectors increasingly acknowledge the value and need for more robust research and evidence-based decision-making, they often don’t know where or how to start. Part of the conference program was devoted to helping stakeholders draw inspiration from the research expertise and work of others, and learn how to harness research for their initiatives.

In a pre-conference workshop, J. Bradley Cousins, University of Ottawa, and Marcie McLean-McKay, Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, discussed how participants can build their comfort and skills in applying measurement and evaluation methodology to their programs.

Bruno Levesque, FCAC, explained that the Agency’s research shows lack of confidence is a key barrier between consumers and good financial decisions. Armed with this knowledge, the FCAC is adjusting its approaches to financial literacy interventions.

During a panel session, experts shared their recent experiences in using research findings to shape program design, and the positive results achieved to date.

In addition, FCAC’s National Research Plan for Financial Literacy, launched in 2016, is designed to focus efforts and coordination among researchers to generate key empirical evidence that can guide the development of smarter, more targeted and more effective financial literacy interventions.

“We land into problems as a society when we design products, programs and processes for people that we think are “econs”, when in fact real consumers are human. We should assume people actually aren’t trying to solve net present value calculations when they make simple decisions in their day-to-day life. So when it comes to financial literacy programs, it’s really important to conduct rigorous evaluation and experiments to see what actually works and what doesn’t.” 

Dilip Soman, University of Toronto

Global research shows financial literacy link to financial behaviour

Does financial education really impact financial literacy and financial behaviour?

Yes! While opinions vary on the extent of financial education’s influence, one presenter cited significant international research demonstrating its positive effects. Andrea Hasler of the Global Financial Literacy Excellence Center shared findings from various surveys around the world that suggest financial literacy is a strong determinant of financial behaviour.

She argued that financial literacy is critical to retirement security, in particular, and “we can find evidence of this to be true around the world”. Citing data from a survey undertaken with the U.S. Federal Reserve as one example, the results revealed that financially literate employees are most likely to participate in and contribute to their employer-sponsored pension plans, earn higher returns, have more diversified portfolios and are less likely to incur high product fees and charges.

The village effect: Collaboration remains critical

Collaboration plays a key role in FCAC’s and the Financial Literacy Leader’s mandates, and during the 2017 event, delegates and presenters alike agreed it remains as essential as ever.

There were many examples of teamwork on display during the conference, in the successful partnerships showcased by presenters and through the collegial spirit demonstrated by delegates. Over the years the financial literacy community has become more connected and less fragmented, with remarkable cross- and intra-sector cooperation. This evolution is the hallmark of a maturing field.

Jane Rooney, Financial Literacy Leader, noted that collaboration is central to achieving the overarching vision of the National Strategy for Financial Literacy, and stakeholders have rallied to the call by forming all types of alliances aimed at helping Canadians strengthen their financial literacy.

Exemplary models of ‘group effort’ are the many regional financial literacy networks that have formed in recent years, representing more than 530 organizations and individuals across the country. These networks have come together in different ways and structures, but all share the philosophy that there is greater strength and synergy in numbers. Representatives from four networks were part of a panel that showcased their efforts.

“Many organizations in Quebec are doing financial education so we had the idea to create a network to promote their tools. A network helps create links and great opportunities for community-based organizations. We encourage our partners to work together, linked to the Quebec financial education strategy.”

Camille Beaudoin, Quebec Financial Education Experts (Autorité des marchés financiers)

“Our executive director likes to say, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together’, and I really think that’s what our collaboration has been trying to do. Partnership takes a lot of time to get the full buy-in from all these different organizations, not just that one passionate employee but coming from the management-leadership level.”

Dean Estrella, Calgary Financial Empowerment Collaborative

The art of customization: Context matters

When it comes to financial literacy-building, many panellists and attendees agreed that ‘context matters’. People’s ability to learn is often dependent on their personal circumstances – which include their socio-economic environment and intrinsic factors like motivation and emotion – as well as the way in which information is presented.

Financial education programs and services therefore need to be tailored to the specific needs of and context facing various groups. This was illuminated during three breakout sessions that focused on addressing the needs of low-income Canadians, Indigenous Peoples and youth.

Dr. Carlana Lindeman from The Martin Family Initiative stressed the importance of partnership with Indigenous Peoples in understanding and customizing initiatives for the diversity of First Nations, Metis Nation and Inuit students in Canada. Using educational approaches grounded in Indigenous cultures and research, she explained how various programs offered by her organization have been geared to specific Indigenous needs.

Focusing on solutions for low-income Canadians, Carlen Scheyk from Momentum highlighted matched-savings programs or Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) as “pathways out of poverty”. These asset building strategies help low-income people save and invest to get ahead, “by directing behaviour in subtle ways”. Program participants take financial education classes and may receive financial counselling for efficient savings and money management practices.

When it comes to educating young Canadians about money matters, Rhiannon Traill, from The Jr. Economic Club of Canada, argued that we’re getting it wrong in dealing with youth who face multiple barriers, often ignoring the emotional piece and the realities they face at home. As she states, “We have to think about where people are coming in. We need to build a positive connection with finance before we go straight into all of the financial rules and products.”

“Effective solutions that we have found in our work around budgeting and other money matters with low-income clients is a beyond-the-math approach. It is not enough to have knowledge alone, but to be able to understand the context and what it would take to make behavioural change. And that speaks to understanding the ingrained habits, attitudes and those quirks of human nature that cause us to make irrational choices in our financial decisions.”

Sally Massey-Wiebe, Community Financial Counselling Services

“People on reserves don’t talk about concepts like retirement planning. We have a different approach when it comes to financial wealth. We have a culture based on land and water. We need to switch the language around so that financial literacy actually means something.”

Shannin Metatawabin, National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association 

The art of demonstration: Experiential learning gains momentum

Another recurring theme during the conference – and backed up by countless researchers – is the value of ‘experience-based learning’ in financial literacy. Increasingly, financial literacy practitioners and evaluations are recognizing that this approach is a highly successful means to help individuals retain information, apply financial lessons they learn by example and make lasting behaviour change.

Representatives of several organizations noted that they have adapted their strategies to focus more on ‘hands on’ learning, engaging participants in financial skills-building through one-on-one coaching and real-life simulations, games or drills that provide a “safe space” for learning. Presenters from various sessions provided great examples of experiential education.

Bettina Schneider, First Nations University of Canada, discussed a culturally relevant course she created, Financial Empowerment, in which Indigenous students learn about money matters through experiential learning including managing an online store. Initial results are very promising: most students indicate the course improved their financial decision-making, confidence and goal-setting.

Lucas Stone, E4C, emphasized that for people in poverty, the evidence shows experiential financial interventions like financial coaching, tax clinics and supported access to banking are important strategies that have helped increase confidence in dealing with the financial system. 

Michael Collins, University of Wisconsin, discussed the positive outcomes being generated by My Classroom Economy, a simulated economic system in which students are assigned jobs, earn dollars and make decisions about saving, spending and budgeting. Among the average impacts, participating students are more likely to engage in money management outside school and talk about money at home.

At the same time, it was noted that more ‘traditional’ educational techniques such as brochures, financial help books and websites are still important. That’s because when it comes to learning, one size does not fit all. People have distinctly different styles and the key is knowing which approaches are most effective for each target audience or individual.

“In terms of approaches that work, what we have found is that the experience is the most important thing. When we give people the experience to see the possibility of saving and connecting them to that possibility, that empowers them.”

Jose Jaime Guerrero, Family Services of Greater Vancouver

“Another way to move the needle is to increase access to coaching. When someone is sick, they don’t need a textbook they need a medical doctor. When someone is struggling to pay their bills or when they are drowning in debt, the last thing they need is a pamphlet telling them how to budget, they don’t need to go to a website to learn how to pay down their debt. They need individualized help, not just education, to deal with the complex barriers that keep them from financial security.”

Carlen Scheyk, Momentum

The art of innovation: Fusing technology with relevance

How can we be relevant and relatable with an increasingly digital population? How can we best leverage the next generation of digital technologies to meet the financial literacy needs of Canadians? During the conference we learned that stakeholders are increasingly trying new technologies and creative approaches to influence behaviour and inspire better financial habits. While the examples cited differ in format and approach, a common emphasis was on deploying technology in meaningful ways to the target audiences.

During a pre-conference workshop, Ellis Westwood of Hill+Knowlton Strategies walked delegates through different digital and social marketing strategies – such as blogging, online newsletters and Facebook ads – and weighed in on the effectiveness of each in connecting with consumers.

In a plenary session, Susanne Cookson, BestLifeRewarded Innovations, discussed how her company has used technology to create an automated financial health coach that all Canadians can use no matter where they live.

To overcome the challenge that “many people find financial literacy boring”, Marissa Sollows, Financial and Consumer Services Commission New Brunswick, described how her organization is using gamification, in the form of an online trivia game that features daily financial literacy questions, rewards, challenges and leaderboards.

Andreas Souvaliotis, CARROT Insights, explained how his company harnessed two of Canadians’ biggest social addictions – smartphones and loyalty rewards – to create a mobile application that motivates people through small incentives to adopt healthier behaviours.

Jérémie Ryan, FCAC, highlighted that their approach is to embrace innovation and technology when appropriate. For instance, FCAC is using two ground-breaking mobile applications to pilot financial literacy interventions: the Small Change app, which focuses on nudging savings behaviours and financial goal setting; and the Carrot Rewards app, which is being used to promote a fundamental building block to better financial literacy: budgeting.

There was consensus that traditional communication channels such as print are still needed to reach some people. One limitation with print materials from the perspective of practitioners is not knowing who read the materials and what they did with them. Alfred Yang, Finnovate.io, said this is where technology really shines: it offers unparallelled capacity to process data and draw comprehensive insights about specific consumer needs, including through virtual conversations.

“The majority of our audiences are accessing this information through technology and different forms of technology. So we really need to go to where they are and in a way they are used to getting information.”

Marissa Sollows, Financial and Consumer Services Commission New Brunswick

Tapping the workplace to reach adult Canadians

Financial anxiety is one of the top stressors for most Canadians, rendering it not just an individual issue, but also an employer issue. Worries about personal finances can be a distraction that affects employee work performance, leads to absenteeism and impacts the organization’s bottom line. Employers that offer financial education in the workplace are helping their employees address this stress head on, often resulting in improved morale and productivity. And by improving their financial literacy, employees will be better able to manage debt, save for emergencies and plan for their retirement.

This topic popped up throughout the conference, and was the focus of a plenary led by Susan Murray, Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association. The session included participants of FCAC’s Workplace Working Group, who shared their research, knowledge and best practices for engaging organizations on the subject.

Mack Rogers, ABC Life Literacy, offered a framework for thinking about workplace financial literacy, cited key fundamentals for engaging employers, and recommended an approach to activating financial wellness programs based on his organization’s research.

Doretta Thompson, Chartered Professional Accountants of Canada (CPA), identified one hour information sessions and “lunch and learns” as being very effective in engaging employees in financial literacy, while Patricia White, Credit Counselling Canada, noted that having a workplace champion or coordinator to “rally the troops” and offer incentives to attend sessions is important.

Laura Higgins, Australian Securities & Investments Commission (ASIC), indicated that they have achieved great success in building financial capability in the teaching workforce through professional development and classroom resources.

It was suggested during the panel and in other sessions that financial literacy in the workplace should be viewed holistically, as part of an overall “life plan” that includes broader mental and physical wellness.

Working Canadians: Current financial picture

Underscoring the need for financial literacy campaigns in the workplace, Janice MacLellan, The Canadian Payroll Association, shared highlights of their 2017 Survey of Employed Canadians:

  • 47% of employed Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque
  • 35% feel overwhelmed by debt
  • 74% have saved only one quarter or less of what they feel they’ll need to retire
  • 46% say they will have to work longer than they planned five years ago
  • For the first time in the nine-year history of the CPA survey, mortgages now exceed credit cards as the most difficult to pay down

“Having the commitment and patience as an employer, we noticed that programs that have been going on for six-plus years were the most successful. So there is a lot to be said for continuing that work and reinforcing it.”

Patricia White, Credit Counselling Canada

Driving the future of financial health

Closing keynote speaker, Nancy Castillo, Center for Financial Services Innovation, wrapped up the conference by touching on a theme that permeated the proceedings over three days: the connection between financial well-being and overall health.

She cited financial data from the ground-breaking U.S. Financial Diaries study, a research platform she led that followed 235 low and moderate-income households over the course of a year. The research offers valuable insights into how people spend, save and plan, highlighting opportunities for improving their financial lives.

Nancy explained that “investing in financial health makes business sense” for companies across North America. With so many benefits linked to the improvement of employee health – such as better performance and morale – she argued that businesses and their customers will thrive when employees thrive.

Special features

Roundtable sessions – Building the future

With a genuine sense of kinship, delegates engaged enthusiastically in roundtable discussions, brainstorming with their peers to identify possible strategies and tactics to foster a better financial future for priority groups in Canada.

On day 1, participants joined one of three concurrent sessions focused on three target audiences:

Financial Literacy for Low-income Canadians: 

This panel featured Prosper Canada’s five National Financial Empowerment Project Champions, who discussed their organizations’ successes, learnings and challenges associated with improving the financial well-being of Canadians living on low-incomes.

Financial Literacy for Youth:

Building on FCAC’s 2014 consultation findings that underlined the importance of starting to teach financial literacy at a young age, this panel shared insights from four organizations and the expertise of a national personal finance journalist.

Financial Literacy for Indigenous Peoples:

Leaders from three Indigenous organizations and an Indigenous-focused foundation shared highlights of programs and initiatives that are targeting Indigenous Peoples and reporting positive outcomes.

Each breakout session followed a similar format: an interactive panel with audience participation that highlighted established programs and resources and what best practices and learnings can be taken away. The panel was followed by table discussions on two common questions to identify what gaps and challenges still remain and ways to address them. Participants’ discussions were rich and constructive, and generated several common themes and specific solutions – a sampling of which are summarized below.

Roundtable sessions – Delegate feedback

Breakout session theme: Across Canada, continue to focus on starting financial literacy at an early age, integrating in-school and at-home experiential learning for children and their parents.

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Parents and educators need to do more to acknowledge the emotional realities of family discussions on finances and assets – and they require supports to do so


Expanded role for parents

Offer joint classes for parents and their children

Indigenous peoples

Engage youth by using culturally appropriate methods, technology and community mentors 

Breakout session theme: Bring all jurisdictions on board for greater consistency around inclusion and quality of financial literacy content and delivery, from kindergarten through high school and postsecondary education.

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Federal-provincial-territorial collaboration on research and measurement of financial literacy acquisition


Need for more standardized curricula across the country and within jurisdictions

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous and financial literacy organizations cocreate an Indigenous engagement strategy for financial literacy

Breakout session theme: Focus on training, supports and competencies for financial literacy educators, trainers and coaches. 

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Advocate for more standardized approaches to financial literacy coaching and work toward common credentials


 Assess and improve teacher financial literacy training in faculties of education across Canada

Indigenous Peoples 

Adopt train the trainer approaches and create the necessary mentorships for community-based learning (versus relying on ‘outsider’ resources)

Breakout session theme: Reframe the importance of financial literacy in holistic ways; integrate with other services; and focus on behaviour change.

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Incorporate financial literacy understanding within other professions (e.g., social and health services)


Smart use of technology to make financial literacy more relevant

Need culture shift to address the challenge of consumerism in building a financially literate Canada

Indigenous Peoples

Financial literacy must be part of a broader integrated socioeconomic strategy for Indigenous communities

Breakout session theme: Promote inclusion and advancing culturally appropriate approaches. 

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Create programs specific to the needs of demographic groups, based on cross-sector research (e.g., Indigenous Peoples, newcomers)


Use role models and story-telling relevant to Indigenous youth (influencers, athletes, games)

Indigenous Peoples

Use creative marketing that allows Indigenous Peoples to see themselves in the programming and initiatives

Breakout session theme: Targeted financial literacy interventions for lower-income and vulnerable Canadians. 

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Encourage the financial services sector to be more responsive to needs of lower-income Canadians

Government to adapt or create alternative programs for low income groups


Policies and regulations to address predatory targeting of lower-income and vulnerable groups by some financial service providers

Governments and financial institutions to provide more funding for social enterprises

Indigenous Peoples

Economic development and access to capital for Indigenous Peoples are critical for financial literacy (“Financial literacy is a vehicle to a goal, not the goal.”)

Increase Indigenous Peoples’ take up of tax credits and benefits

Breakout session theme: Promote greater collaboration with the financial services sector and employers in advancing financial literacy.

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Financial services sector and employers to create initiatives with incentives for employees to save

Asset-building incentives are needed for all income groups, not just for lowerincome populations


Financial services sector to provide financial literacy resources for parents to support their youth as they move from high school to postsecondary schoolingor the workforce

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous communities have an urgent need for access to capital for economic development

Make banking more accessible to Indigenous Peoples (e.g., character based lending, communal savings accounts)

Breakout session theme: Need for improved accessibility and sharing of financial literacy resources and materials, using technology more effectively.

Examples of ideas suggested by delegates for:

Low-income Canadians

Knowledge-sharing portals and hubs, including for those involved with delivery of financial literacy 


Improve navigability of FCAC website, especially for youth

Indigenous Peoples

Create a national portal of financial literacy resources that can be customized by Indigenous Peoples

Financial literacy showcase

During networking breaks, delegates visited a conference showcase to view the latest research and initiatives from a variety of organizations in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. Thank you to all the exhibitors for their participation. 

Memorable moment – Young Canadians step up

Many young Canadians are blazing their own trail to improve money smarts among their peers, and FCAC was pleased to invite some of them to present their financial literacy projects. Thank you to McGill University’s PennyDrops, Talk to Our Kids About Money Montreal winners, and all the youth that participated in this year’s conference.

Reporting on progress through success

FCAC presented four short success story videos to highlight successful resources and tools with innovative approaches that are helping Canadians and are inspiring fellow practitioners:

Empowering Women: Financial literacy training for Indigenous women

Innovation: Finding new ways to engage youth

Creative Solutions: Small changes matter

Making Connections: Financial literacy networks in Canada


Conference program


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