Saturday, October 22, 2011

RSC Annual Symposium: Early Innovations and Initiatives in Literacy for Citizenship

A week ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Royal Society of Canada's Annual Symposium: Literacy and Citizenship in the 21st Century, at Library and Archives Canada.

I will post more notes about other sessions later, but one of the first sessions was one of the most fascinating. James H. Morrison, a Professor of History at Saint Mary's University, and Board member and College Historian for Frontier College, presented about "Early Innovations and Initiatives in Literacy for Citizenship." We have a partnership at the Ottawa Public Library with Frontier College: they deliver homework help sessions and reading circles at numerous branches.

Here is my summary of Professor Morrison's fascinating talk.

Professor Morrison opened by sketching several vignettes of his early involvement with Frontier College. During the 1960s, when there were protests on his university campus and students were developing their “social conscience,” Morrison began working on a rail chain gang on the Prairies. He decided to hold evening classes for his fellow workers, tacking up a sign on a rail car that classes would be from 7-9 pm in the evenings. Over the summer, he helped his coworkers work on citizenship applications, or letters to sweethearts.

Morrison described Frontier College’s humble beginnings, from an "idea conceived in protest." Founder Alfred Fitzpatrick’s concern for the transient working class, who were “neither sheltered by unions nor cared for by management,” led him to want to help these unrepresented people. Morrison drew a vibrant picture of the “transatlantic migration of human machines” in early 20th century Canada (between 1881 and 1891, 1 million people came to Canada): the “new world welcomed new immigrants via steam trains,” as politicians (Morrison specifically mentioned Clifford Sifton) promoted immigration as an attractive prospect. Many were destined for work camps or farms: in 1900, the majority of the Canadian population was rural, and the labour class lived outside urban settings. Fitzpatrick took this fact, and the concept of adult literacy, to “rail workers, shanty men, and miners,” beginning in 1899, “bringing education to the men, not the men to the education.” His early efforts “in the wooden wilds of Ontario, were an experiment, intended to demonstrate what Fitzpatrick believed the state should be doing. Fitzpatrick believed that “as long as one man wanted to learn, and another man was prepared to teach him, education would take place.”

Morrison shared many wonderful archival photos of Frontier College’s early work, including farm workers’ classes in the 1950s and today (see one pic above, and others of their lobby display here). The College now works in urban “frontiers”: while they continue their rural work, they also have classes in prisons, low-income areas and have classes for Aboriginal and other marginalised populations. This is in keeping with their history of ensuring that all are welcome: classes have seen waves of Eastern European immigrants in the early 20th century, Aboriginal workers mid-century, and Jamaican and Mexican farm workers in modern times.

Morrison attributed Frontier College’s continued success to four important concepts that the College has learned along the way:
  1. Innovation: Frontier College adopted the concept of the “labour teacher,” had some of the earliest travelling libraries, and were one of the few organisations sending teachers to the unemployment camps in the 1930s. In modern Canada, they were one of the first to hold camps for Aboriginal populations.
  2. Continuity: In its 11 decades, the College has only had 7 presidents. The College has maintained a constant ideal, also: that “literacy is the means by which citizens can enjoy equal rights and equal career opportunities.”
  3. Commitment: Frontier College has maintained a commitment to assist those who have fallen between the cracks of society or “slipped through the twine of the social safety net.”
  4. Youth: The passion, energy and dedication of youth have been crucial to the College. Committed young people with a civic conscience can influence change for the better in the world in which they live.
One of the interesting audience questions after Morrison’s session inquired about Frontier College’s relationship or link to union organisation. Morrison replied that Frontier College was developing long before unions had any influence or power, and also, really, migrant workers (who were the clients of Frontier College) were entirely unrepresented. Frontier College’s opinion was always that their students “can read Lincoln or they can read Lenin... Politics is not the point. We can't tell them what to read!”

A wonderful session full of interesting historical context for adult literacy programs in Canada.

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