Frontier College

Frontier College has a long and storied history in Canadian Adult and Community Education having begun in 1899 founded by Alfred Fitzpatrick. It began working in Alberta just three years after Alberta became the province of Alberta. Many, many people have flowed through Frontier College in their capacity as university students, teachers, and community education workers. One of our most famous alumni is renown physician and social activist Dr Norman Bethune who went on to international fame caring for  the Chinese Revolutionary Army under the leadership of Mao Zedong. As for me, I did not know at the time that my experience with Frontier College would lead to my first career move out of university on the West Coast of Canada. 

My introduction to Frontier College began in 1972 while at my alma mater, the University of New Brunswick. I was a young undergrad looking for adventure and something different for a summer work experience. The previous two years I had been the Executive Director of a boys residential sports camp on the Ottawa River just west of Hudson, Quebec owned and operated by the Boy Scouts of Canada. I loved the job but after two years I yearned for a change so I submitted my application to Frontier College and went through the interview process but didn’t land one of two spots available for some lucky university student. Undaunted by not landing a position that Spring of ‘72 I vowed to try again the following Spring before heading back to university and post graduate studies. Fortunately for me I was successful the next year in getting a job with Frontier College and hence my summer of discovery and adventure would begin anew-to where I did not know! 

In those days, Frontier College recruited on university campuses and sent those selected to Toronto for a week of intensive training before sending them off to some far flung region of Canada where resources were often limited and you were expected to adapt to your new environment with ingenuity and determination. On the last day of training in Toronto, you drew out of a hat where you were about to be sent and off you went. In my case, I drew a Falconbridge mining camp called Manibridge-it no longer exists-in northern Manitoba. At the time Manibridge had the reputation for being one of the deadliest underground mines in Canada. Loose rock hindered the mining of the ore and and that summer two miners died doing their challenging work. I was given my own room in the bunk trailer and within the first week I had one of the most frightening experiences of my life. I was sound asleep when someone kicked the door in of my room and there stood a dark shadowy figure with the outline of an axe in his raised hand. Luckily, he realized I wasn’t the guy he was after and left me shaking bolt upright in my bed. That next day I got a baseball bat from the recreation centre and it was my companion the rest of my stay at Manibridge. We never did find out who drop-kicked my door down and there were no further incidents that summer. 

My job was to teach literacy and help the miners-mostly new immigrants from Europe to Canada-in any way that I could. I remember contacting Public Health in Winnipeg and having someone come visit us to provide much needed services on an intermittent basis. I also organized sports days and taught fitness classes to the miners. With time off I toured northern Manitoba in an old Landrover with a good friend I made, he was a Colorado School of Mines graduate, and we went all over northern Manitoba and even as far west as La Rouge in northern Saskatchewan. It was quite the summer having had the good fortune to visit historic Hudson Bay and Northwest Company sites. 

In the photo are a pair of beaded moccasins, they were handmade for me by an old Cree First Nations woman who was married to an outdoor labourer at Manibridge who I worked with occasionally. He told me so many stories of what life was like before the whiteman was here. I remember the bugs and asked him what they did before we had bug spray, “Bear grease”, was his reply. I think my eye balls were as big as saucers fore he laughed and gave me a quick tap on my shoulder. His wife also made a magnificent beaded jacket for me out of moose hide and unfortunately I loaned it to my brother back in Montreal, never to be seen again. What a loss!

How did Frontier College fit into your first career move you might ask? On my interview team of five Surrey School District administrators  and one Surrey Parks and Recreation administrator, for the Community Education Co-ordinator’s job for the Surrey School District was Dr Don McKinnon-Director of Adult and Continuing Education. Don had been an administrator with the federal Department of Indian Affairs for British Columbia and knew about the work of  Frontier College. As Don told me years later, “If Brian can work for Frontier College, he can do this job.” It was a new position in Surrey and indeed Canada. We were the very first Community Educators hired in Canada for a movement out of the Mott Foundation in Michigan. No sooner was I hired than I was being flown to Michigan for an introduction/training where once again I would have to adapt and be creative to thrive in my job with no template to follow. We were expected to pioneer a new movement in Canada and be successful on behalf of the Board and the City of Surrey-no pressure! Now almost fifty years later there are many Community Education and Community Schools programs across our nation. I wonder how many Community Education specialists would know the history of their discipline?

Frontier College in many ways set me up to succeed in my many different careers starting with public education and transitioning into Organization Development and later Human Resources before exiting as the CEO of a Corporate Conference Centre here in Alberta . I’m proud to say that I’m an alumni of Frontier College with terrific memories that have lasted a lifetime.             


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