This Week in History


Life Lessons

For the week of Monday September 20, 2004

On September 24, 1999, Frontier College celebrated its 100th anniversary. In 1899, the Canadian Reading Association was established by Alfred Fitzpatrick. Officially named Frontier College in 1919, Fitzpatrick's vision of developing a learning environment for unskilled workers in isolated areas on a national, non-denominational level continues to enrich 'isolated' segments of the community to this day.

Frontier College 100th Anniversary Stamp
© Canada Post Corporation, 1999. Reproduced with Permission.

Isolated lumber, mine and railway labourers worked long hours in work camps. These camps were a reality of the Canadian economy before the Second World War. The labourers expanded Canada's roads, railways and mines. Their work increased the accessibility of remote areas. Since the workers ranged from the urban working-class to recent immigrants, the services provided by Frontier College included citizenship and language classes, informal counselling, libraries, and recreational activities.

Frontier College focused on the principle of education as a means to social reform. As a result, university students willing to be labourer-teachers were able to gain valuable leadership experience while the students of the college were able to get an education in a convenient location. The labourer-teachers laboured during the day and taught the other workers during their free time. The concept of the labourer-teacher was effective because many of the workers did not speak English very well and were wary of outsiders. Because the labourer-teachers worked alongside their pupils, they learned to trust each other.

Reading Tent in the Rocky Mountains, ca. 1910
© James H. Morrison, Frontier College

Fitzpatrick campaigned to have Frontier College recognized as a university. He wanted to combat the exclusive nature of universities by offering degree programs to the less fortunate. In 1922, Frontier College became the first and only national university in Canada. Labourers could obtain degrees while still working because the courses were completed by correspondence. Unfortunately, opposition from other universities led to financial difficulties in the 1930s, which forced Frontier College to abandon its university status. Although this unique endeavour was short-lived, it caused education authorities to open their eyes to the need for adult education programs.

After the Second World War, new technology caused a gradual decline in the need for work camps. Frontier College started to focus on helping people with learning disabilities, immigrants learning English and French as a second language, street people and ex-convicts. In 1977, Frontier College received the UNESCO Literacy Prize for its efforts toward improving adult education. Frontier College was recognized as a National Historic Event in 1998 for its role in providing social welfare and education to isolated manual labourers.

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