Reading on the Frontier

Reviewed by Faye Hammill

Teaching adults to read. Offering learning opportunities in remote locations. Distributing books free of charge. Who could doubt that these are good things to do, or that an organization which does them is benign? In 1999, a Canadian stamp commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Frontier College (formerly the Canadian Reading Camp Association or CRCA) featured the slogan “Education for all.” In its early years, the CRCA provided travelling libraries and reading rooms for workers in mining, railway, and lumber camps, and soon began to offer evening classes in English and other basic subjects. Today, Frontier College announces itself on its website as “a national charitable literacy organization.” It outlines an admirable student-centred philosophy, emphasizing mutual learning between student and tutor, and promising that “[w]e go where people are, rather than expecting them to come to us.” Alongside this are statements of the organization’s vision: “Literacy is recognized as a human right and a driving force to empowerment and prosperity”; “We work with volunteers and community partners to give people the skills and confidence they need to reach their potential and contribute to society.” This part might give us pause. It draws on a discourse of entrepreneurial citizenship, stressing the individual’s responsibility to be self-reliant and productive, and on a narrowed definition of literacy, oriented towards training for the workplace.

The history of Frontier College can legitimately be told as the stamp tells it. There was idealism—the founder of the CRCA and first principal of Frontier College, Alfred Fitzpatrick, sought to combat inequality, diminish urban-rural divides, and dismantle “hierarchical distinctions between manual and mental labour” (Mason 126). There was generosity, as labourer-teachers toiled all day in remote camps and dedicated their evenings to teaching their fellow workers. There was ingenuity: reading rooms were housed in old railway cars or repurposed shacks, and camp instructors made use of lantern shows, phonographs, and film, as well as books and periodicals.

Yet the concepts of self-improvement and national belonging which defined this organization—and which it, in turn, helped to define—have been fiercely contested over the whole period of its existence. Scrutiny of these debates, and of the ways in which adult-education movements became entangled with them, reveals a very different version of the history of Frontier College. In early-twentieth-century Canada, the requirements of capitalist resource extraction led to an influx of non-British immigrant labour. In this context, as Jody Mason persuasively argues,

an early pedagogy for citizenship emerged that drew on the affective dimensions of citizenship (“home feelings”) as a means of engaging a principal adversary and interlocutor—socialist and communist print cultures and the non-British immigrant communities with which these were associated. . . . [T]he Reading Camp Movement combined the cultural mechanisms of literature, literacy, and citizenship to encourage apparently benevolent forms of liberal selfhood, particularly among non-British immigrants. . . . Both literacy and citizenship served as important instruments of social distinction, differentiating those who could “give” them from those who . . . lacked them. (5)

Rather than helping to eradicate social inequalities, adult educators could actually end up reinforcing them. Frontier College received state support, arguably, because it provided ways of managing potentially disruptive working-class or immigrant populations and converting them into productive and loyal citizens. Even reading poetry and fiction, Mason suggests, could be understood as a way of turning workers away from collective action and towards introspection and sentimental community. The particular books which were selected for the camp libraries encouraged attachment to Canada, as well as to the families from which labourers were physically divided. Fitzpatrick, as he developed his ideas about citizenship education, drew on discourses of maternal feminism which identified the family as “the key site of individual moral formation and thus of the making of the citizen” (24). He requested government support for his travelling library service on the basis that books might supply the moral influence which women provided in a domestic setting.

One of Fitzpatrick’s most radical ideas was that Frontier College should be granted degree-awarding powers. His ambition—described in his book The University in Overalls: A Plea for Part-time Study (1920)—was to establish Canada’s first extramural degree program, and to ensure access to university education for all via off-campus instruction at mining and forestry sites. This plan, which threatened not only Canada’s class structure but also the power of its elite universities, was vigorously challenged. The Ontario government withheld its grant to Frontier College in 1929, ultimately forcing Fitzpatrick’s resignation. Mason identifies this as a turning point: “The demise of Fitzpatrick’s vision signals an important step in the association’s move away from assessing and acting on structural inequalities,” and a shift in its emphasis “from moral to political citizenship, from home to state, and from British- and native-born Canadians to non-British immigrants” (126). And what else was happening in Canada during these interwar years? The federal government carried out its earliest “experiments in compulsory citizenship education” with Status Indian children at residential schools (127). A series of legislative measures introduced new ways of selecting and excluding immigrants, with a focus on barring those involved in activities deemed subversive, as well as those from Asian countries, who were considered non-assimilative. The question of access to, and preparation for, citizenship had never been more pressing, or more contentious. To secure continued state funding, Frontier College had to engage with government agendas, even when its own priorities didn’t fit them.

The full story of Frontier College and its Reading Camp Movement has never been told before. It’s a very important story in itself, and Mason’s telling, based on extremely thorough archival research, is nuanced, intriguing, and often surprising. But her study does much more than reconstruct the history of a single organization. Home Feelings also makes an enormous contribution to our understanding of the material practices of reading in the earlier twentieth century. Mason’s sustained attention to topics including spaces, pedagogies, and communities of reading yields many new insights. More broadly, Home Feelings takes the pre-World War II evolution of Frontier College not as its entire subject but as a case study which enables a powerful analysis of the meanings of citizenship in Canada and the ways in which its development has been narrated. Citizenship education was to some extent collectively oriented, since it was intended both to bring opportunities to groups who had been excluded from formal schooling, and to develop a sense of collective identity for Canadians. Yet at the same time, it constructed citizenship as “an individual identity that entailed self-government, hard work, thrift, property acquisition, and lawful behaviour” (11). It located the individual in a private, rather than collective, social context. This intimate sociality, Mason argues, was consolidated through the educational and literacy practices of middle-class reformers, and used to counteract the literacies of the left. In contemporary Canada, its legacies are visible in liberal conceptions of the social. These, Mason suggests, are dangerous precisely because “they can seem so benign, relying as they do on commonsense appeals to private family responsibility” (234).

This book provides a model of archivally based, theoretically informed interdisciplinary research. Historians of education, of reading, and of citizenship will find Mason’s discoveries extremely resonant.

This review “Reading on the Frontier” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 16 Jun. 2021. Web.

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