Canada's Iconic Frontier College: Building literacy since 1899

Canada's Iconic Frontier College: Building literacy since 1899

Rev Alfred FitzpatrickFrontier College is Canada’s longest-standing literacy institution. It has been making literacy education available in Canada’s most remote regions for well over a century.

The outreach model used is inspiring. Learners are not required to come to buildings—literacy education is taken to them. In the words of its founder, Rev. Alfred Fitzpatrick: “Wherever and whenever [people] have occasion to gather, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education” (Krotz, cited in Quigley, 2006, p. 46).

Fitzpatrick was born in a farming community in Nova Scotia, the second youngest of 12 children. He grew up hearing about his older brother, Lee, who had gone to the Redwood Forest lumber camps of California to work but had died there. Then Fitzpatrick watched another older brother, Isaac, leave home for the same place and for the same reason, never to be heard from again.

After graduating with a degree in theology in 1892 as a Presbyterian minister, Fitzpatrick decided he wanted to serve as a missionary and would go to the Redwood Forest lumber camps. Besides his mission, he wanted to find Isaac. His biographer James Morrison wrote that it was “in the towering forests of California that Fitzpatrick was to define his life work” (1989, p. 5).

A graphic showing workers at a camp.The story of how Fitzpatrick found his brother is remarkable. According to oral history, he was walking along a trail heading to the lumber camp when he was offered a ride by someone driving a wagon along the trail. Alfred climbed in and recognized Isaac immediately—although Isaac, having been away from Nova Scotia for 20 years, did not recognize the grown-up Alfred (Morrison, 1989, p. 6). The brothers were finally reunited.

As they talked, Alfred learned about indescribable dangers and the loneliness of those working in the lumber camps. The brutal work life and total lack of work safety and health care. The absence of any social services or legal assistance, along with no churches nor governmental agency support. This was a true frontier. Worse, since the majority of workers were immigrants who struggled to follow the instructions in English, the death toll was massive. What he saw and heard led Alfred “to devote his life to those who laboured on the frontier” (Morrison, 1989, p. 6).

A graphic showing a group of men inside a reading room lit by a lantern.Fitzpatrick was living at the turn of the 20th century when the Social Gospel was a driving force for many social and religious reformists. As Fitzpatrick realized, here were the forgotten working in Canada’s mines, lumber camps and railways. “Their working conditions were appalling, their living conditions primitive” (Morrison, 1989, p. 7). Here was his calling. As he himself said, knowledge was “the God-given right of every person, not the exclusive privilege of the favoured few” (Morrison, 1989, p. 8). For Fitzpatrick, knowledge had to start with literacy.

He began with his first Reading Camp in October 1899, in a lumber camp near Nairn Centre in Northern Ontario, and invited young university graduates to volunteer to help. They soon established 24 “reading rooms” in log structures or canvas tents throughout Northern Ontario’s lumber camps. The young university volunteers—mostly young males—were financially supported by church, private, commercial, or government agencies.

A-graphic-showing-the-reading-tents.In the early years, the young volunteers would simply wait for the workers to return in the evening, then help those interested in learning English and reading and writing. But the volunteers soon realized they would be far more effective if they built trust and rapport by working shoulder-to-shoulder with the workers. So they headed out in the early morning to work; then, exhausted, hands calloused, covered with mosquito bites, they taught literacy to those who came to the reading tents, box cars or huts, or they simply taught by the light of campfires. They became “labourer-teachers.” Today, labourer-teachers follow the same basic “work then teach” model.

This approach was attractive to the federal government, leading it to provide some financial support.

Fitzpatrick wrote the first Handbook for New Canadians in 1919. To make this handbook accessible to immigrants, English translations of 700 words of Italian, French, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish were included. The Handbook was but one of the teaching “materials on Canada’s history and government, naturalization, and basic English language structure” (Morrison, 1989, p. 13). Remarkably, by 1920, some 100,000 workmen had been taught by over 500 labourer-teachers.

But Fitzpatrick was to die in disappointment. Formally named Frontier College in 1902, then given degree granting authority by the federal government in in 1919, to Fitzpatrick’s dismay that charter was never to be fulfilled. Most of the largest universities, colleges and the provincial departments of education across Canada would simply not accept a “national college.” Education was, and still is, the responsibility of provinces and territories, and Frontier College was a threat to their provincial jurisdiction. Despite every effort by Fitzpatrick, ultimately “little or no financial support was forthcoming from the federal government” (Morrison, 1989, p. 15) to further the College’s goals. When Fitzpatrick died in 1925, so too did his dream of a nation-wide degree-granting institution.

A graphic showing inside.Edmund Bradwin continued as president of Frontier College, placing labourer-teachers throughout the frontiers of Canada. The College still is volunteer-based and non-degree granting. Over a century later, labourer-teachers still work alongside migrant workers on farms, people in white-collar settings, and with youth and with people who have physical and mental challenges. Frontier College is building learning partnerships with Canada’s Indigenous population, engaging the homeless and street people in literacy teaching, and working in Canada’s remotest prisons.

Take a look at the College’s mission as posted on their website:

“Literacy is recognized as a human right and a driving force to empowerment and prosperity. Frontier College leads the effort in Canada to help people and communities reach their full potential through the power of literacy.”

Read More

Morrison, J.H. (1989). Camps and classrooms: A pictorial history of Frontier College. Toronto: Frontier College Press.

Quigley, A. (2006). Building professional pride in literacy: A dialogical guide to professional development. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing.

Selman, G., Selman, M., Cooke, M., & Dampier, P. (1998). The foundations of adult education in Canada (2nd ed.). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc.