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This Week in History: Frontier College, Canada’s original literacy program

WATCH: Frontier College was Canada’s original literacy program, helping migrant workers from all over the world. Vee Cooper has the details.

Genevieve Weber is an archivist with the Royal BC Museum and she’s been researching documents about Frontier College, stored at the BC Archives.

“I became personally interested in the records because my husband was part of the program when he was in his 20s,” Weber  says.

“After he graduated from UVic, he worked on a broccoli farm in Ontario. He was working with Mexican migrant workers, and he laboured in the daytime with them ? he drove the tractor and helped harvest the broccoli ? and then in the evenings he lived with the men, and he taught them English and he helped them do their shopping and their banking.”

And that sums up Frontier College, Canada’s original literacy program. Founded in 1899, Frontier College offers education to workers in mining and logging camps, on the railways, and on farms.

“The work that these labourer/teachers were doing in the daytime was hard work” says Weber. “These were university-educated men. They were not necessarily men who were used to doing hard labour, but when they went to the camp they were expected to work with the labourers all day long.”

They would then teach the workers at night and submit a report when they left, usually after four or five months. A number of reports from the 1950s are stored at the BC Archives and available to the public, with some restrictions.

“There’s a process that you have to go through in order to access those records,” explains Weber. “We want people to be able to access information about their government and about the province as a whole, however legislation also is in place to protect the privacy of individuals.”

The short, detailed reports include the original countries of the workers, which came from all over the world.

“It really can be an interesting way for us to learn about immigrant history in British Columbia” says Weber. “We have a handful of these reports, but when people come in, if they’re interested in them, we can direct them to Library and Archives Canada, which has a huge collection of records.”

Frontier College continues across Canada to this day.

 

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