Not the Exclusive Right of the Favored Few

“Not the Exclusive Right of the Favored Few.
Frontier College: 1899 to Today.”

We have now seen several historical literacy landmarks this year but, of all we have seen, Canada’s Frontier College is the only one that still exists. It is still thriving after more than a century. Volunteers are still taking literacy education to the remotest corners of Canada, including many of today’s “frontiers,”such as to the homeless on urban city streets, to penitentiaries, conducting summer camp programs for indigenous children and youth, and many other innovative outreach initiatives. But here is another major difference from those we have seen so far.

Reading tents in The Rocky Mountains

Reading tents for Canada’s earliest railway workers seen here in the Rocky Mountains

Every landmark we have seen has required learners to travel to a building or program or centre–and do so according to the program’s schedule. Not Frontier College. As its founder, Alfred Fitzpatrick, stated in 1920: “Wherever and whenever [people] have occasion to gather, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.” Frontier College has always taken literacy to the learners, not the other way around.


Alfred Fitzpatrick was born in the farming community of Millsville, Pictou County, Nova Scotia in 1862. The second youngest of 12 children (Morrison, 1989), he grew up knowing that one brother, Lee, had worked and died in the Redwood lumber camps of California. He and his family had also said good-bye to his other brother, Isaac, who also left Nova Scotia for the California forests to earn a living. His family had not heard from him since.

Alfred Fitzpatrick

Alfred Fitzpatrick

After graduating in 1892 with a degree in theology to become a Presbyterian minister, Fitzpatrick decided to serve the workers in lumber camps and, in so doing, perhaps he could reconnect with lost brother Isaac and find the grave site of his other older brother, Lee. It was, “in the towering forests of California that Fitzpatrick was to define his life work” (Morrison, p. 5).

According to oral history, Fitzpatrick was driving a team of horses and wagon along a forest road when he offered a ride to a stranger. Imagine Alfred’s surprise when he recognized that it was Isaac, his lost brother. As historian James Morrison put it: “It was during this drive through the majestic evergreens” (p. 6) that Isaac realized he was suddenly reunited with the brother he assumed was some 4,000 miles away. As they talked, the stories Isaac told him about the brutal, even life-threatening work that most did in the lumber camps, together with the total lack of workers’ recourse to a union, governmental agency or, often, even a church, that led Alfred to resolve “to devote his life to those who laboured on the frontier” (Morrison, p. 6).


As seen earlier with the Moonlight Schools of Kentucky, at the turn of the 20th century there was a growing number of social and reformist philanthropists, charities, church groups, and governmental agencies that were seeking to help the marginalized and working poor in Canadian and U.S, towns and cities; but, next to no help for the thousands—many of whom were immigrants–working beyond society’s urban and rural centers. These were the forgotten working in Canada’s mines, remote lumber camps, and on railway lines that moved across the vast expanses of Canada. For these forgotten men and women, as Morrison states: “Their working conditions were appalling, their living conditions primitive” (p. 7).

 citizenship class for Scandinavian newcomers

A citizenship class for Scandinavian newcomers taught by D.L. Mcdougal at a nickel mine in Northern Ontario.

Fitzpatrick worked out of the prevailing Social Gospel reform movement at the turn of the century. For Fitzpatrick, the social gospel meant knowledge was “the God-given right of every person, not the exclusive privilege of the favoured few” (Morrison, p. 8). He began his reformist work in a lumber camp near Nairn Centre in Northern Ontario in 1899, setting up his first Reading Camp  in October, 1900.

He recruited university student volunteers and they, in turn, managed to establish 24 reading rooms in log structures or canvas tents in various locations throughout this Northern region. These young university volunteers—mainly young males—were financially supported by church donations, private, commercial, and some governmental support. Interestingly, they had to decide how to engage with the workers, and began by waiting until the evening when the workers’ came back to camp when the long day was over. But, it was soon obvious this was not adequate.  The wait-for them-to-return idea soon evolved to where the volunteers, called labourer-teachers, no longer sat waiting for the workers. Instead, they set out each morning and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with them. Then—exhausted, hands calloused, covered with mosquito bites and back-weary—they set up their portable blackboards and taught literacy to those who chose to come to their reading tent, donated box car, or construction hut at night. Among the famous figures who worked with Frontier College in their youth was Dr. Norman Bethune.

The labourer-teachers today still work for equivalent wages as their learners, still do the same work as their learners and still find the stamina to teach literacy on the job or after hours just as they have for over a century.


Fitzpatrick did not fight to unionize workers or bring about political reform. Much like the majority of our literacy programs today, his way was to work with individuals, not to seek systemic reform. Such an individualistic, “non-threatening” approach, especially when working with Canada’s newest Citizens, was highly attractive to a federal government that was trying to build the workforce. It supported Fitzpatrick’s early efforts.

Fitzpatrick personally wrote the Handbook for New Canadians in 1919.  “Each instructor was sent to the frontier grasping a volume to promote Canadianism” (Morrison, p. 13). Translations of 700 words of Italian, French, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish into English were added to “materials on Canada’s history and government, naturalization, and basic English language structure” (Morrison, p. 13). By 1920, some 100,000 workmen had been taught by over 500 labourer-teachers. By 1967, half of the labourer-teachers were working with those in railway work, a quarter were still teachig in the mines, and the remaining quarter were in logging camps


In 1919, degree-granting authority had been granted to the college by the federal government but, to Fitzpatrick’s dismay, the degree-granting charter, as given, was  never to be fulfilled. Why not?Many of Canada’s largest universities, colleges, and provincial departments of education simply would not accept a sweeping “Pan-Canadian  college.” The idea of a “national college” challenged the right of provinces and territories to have control of education within their own jurisdictions’ under the BNA Act. Despite the lobbying  effort of Fitzpatrick and a stellar Board of Examiners that included some of Canada’s most lauded scholars, ultimately, “little or no financial support was forthcoming from [the federal] government” (Morrison, p. 15). It was a crushing disappointment to Fitzpatrick.


Fitzpatrick died along with his dream of a degree-granting institution in 1925. Staff member Edwin Bradwin continued as president doing  what Frontier College had always done best—placing volunteer labourer-teachers throughout Canada to help those on the margins of society. But always as a non-credit institution. The original concept of taking literacy to the people nevertheless remains alive and well with Frontier College, as it has for over a century.

Through time, according to researcher Pierre Walter (personal communication), there has been a perceived shift from social gospel to a social justice orientation at Frontier College; from helping individuals, specifically, to working with learners and advocating for them in the face of systemic injustices. Reminiscent of the evolution in the way Jane Addams and her colleagues came to view the purposes of literacy education at Hull House, we see here  a longstanding point of ideological controversy among programs,  practitioners and academics across out history-rich field of adult literacy and basic education (Quigley, 2017). We have multiple literacy community-based tutoring programs across Canada but, essentially, “Why do we not have more distance outreach?”


Perhaps the most obvious point  of this story is point to the many ways our history differs from other areas of education.Meaning the histories of universities, vocational/technical schools and most colleges.Ours is a history of deeply dedicated individuals who found ways to continue their work despite the on-again-off-again sponsorship of so many funding agencies through so many years. Ours is history of overcoming barriers to learning. But, at least as I see it, Frontier College is an enduring example of outreach to those who can’t, or just won’t, come to programs. The Frontier College model says to me,  “In the 21st century, we need better use of distance education to reach our potential learners. we have the innovative technologies.” In fact, some post-secondary institutions in various provinces and territories have been experimenting  with technology to reach more adults and families with lower literacy skills, but those efforts hardly compare with the growing juggernaut of distance education possibilities offered in the technology-rich world of K-12 and post-secondary education. A sabbatical trip I made to Australia back in 1996 showed me how far ahead they were in reaching adults with literacy education even in Australia’s remotest outback regions. And I have read about highly successful examples of the use of distance technologies for literacy/BE in parts of the USA.

Will anything really be different I how we deliver adult literacy and BE in this century (Quigley, 2017)? Frontier College challenges us to revisit the potential of group and individual outreach for our field with technology. As Fitzpatrick put it:  “Wherever and whenever [people] have occasion to gather, then and there shall be the time, place and means of their education.”


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

 Quigley, B.A. (2017). Will anything by different in the 21st century? How 107 million adults and the field of adult literacy became so marginalized. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26 (pp. 39-54).

Tune In Next Month For Our Last History Story: “The Antigonish Movement”

 Is it possible to help others build literacy skills without teachers, programs, curricula or added funding? If so, how? Tune in next month to see our last  story. Often called “Canada’s most famous adult education event,” the Antigonish Movement–which occurred in the Maritime provinces in the first half of the 20th century–is one more of the inspiring stories that make up a history that we should be proud of, and better informed by.

Until next month,, make a difference.

Dr. Allan Quigley & the SARN Team.

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