Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Norman Bethune becomes a teacher-labourer at Frontier College


           It is September 1911, and 21 year-old Norman Bethune, now two years into university medical training, arrives at the Toronto office of the Reading Camp Association, later to be named Frontier College.  He is seeking employment as a labourer-teacher, and is attracted both to the physical challenge of the position as well as to the ideal of service. The work will take him to the Victoria Harbour Lumber Company at Pinage Lake near Whitefish, Ontario.  His task will be to work side by side with the labourers of the lumber camp for 10 hours a day, 6 days a week and to provide 1-2 hours of schooling each evening.  He will also be expected to conduct religious services on Sundays.  He will live, work and play with his co-worker/students.  His labouring work will include being an axe man and helping to operate a machine that drags logs uphill.  Evening schooling will consist primarily of 'Canadianizing' immigrants, and acting as guide and mentor to unskilled workers (Shepherd and Levesque, 1982; Martin, 2000).

            Hard work is not new to Bethune.  After high school, he spent a year working in the Algoma lumber camps in 1907, and taught grades 1 through 8 for 6 months in 1909 before enrolling in his university studies (Wilson, 1999).  Being a university student, having teaching experience and a demonstrated ability to do hard, physical work, were all attributes that help him to land the job.  The only training he receives is a brief description of the philosophy of the Reading Camp, a description of the particular camp he will be working at, and an outline of the teaching he is expected to do.   He works from September 1911 until the Spring thaw in 1912.  There is no real record of what the experience means to Bethune, but he does express an interest in returning for several months later in the year.  There are no openings at that time, however and Bethune continues his medical studies (Shepherd and Levesque, 1982; Martin, 2000).

            What was the raison d'etre of the Reading Camp Association, and what kind of person was Norman Bethune that he would have been drawn to working here?  Alfred Fitzpatrick started the Reading Camp Association - or Frontier College as it was later called- in 1899.  He was the son of Nova Scotia farmers who were United Empire Loyalists, staunch Presbyterians who believed strongly in the value of education.  Fitzpatrick became a  Presbyterian minister after graduating from Queen's University,  and was strongly influenced by Dewey's thoughts about the importance of life-long learning and the connection between education and democracy (Martin, 2000).  He also believed that education carried with it an obligation to lead and serve humanity.  He spent time as an itinerant minister in lumber camps and observed the appalling conditions under which the workers lived and laboured.  He noted that there were basically two groups of men.  One group of native-born Canadians who had very little education, and another group of immigrant men, many unable to speak English.  He saw education as a way of improving individual and social conditions for these men.  The education that he promoted included basic literacy and math skills for all workers, as well as citizenship training for the immigrant men.  Citizenship education included such things as English, Canadian geography, history, government structure and the details of naturalization.  Recreational and cultural events were encouraged in an effort to teach Canadian cultural norms.  One of the textbooks of the day described a "good citizen" as one who, 

    Loves God; Loves the Empire; Loves Canada; Loves his own family; Protects women and children; Works hard; Does his work well; Helps his neighbour; Is Truthful; Is just; Is honest; Is brave; Keeps his promise; His body is clean; He is every inch a man. (Martin 2000: 75).  

            Teacher-labourers taught citizenship education at the Reading Camp Association both overtly through curriculum, and covertly by example.  Labourer-teachers were expected to be role models, moral guides, counselors  and friends.  They were available to advise in dispute settlement and to hear grievances.  They did not teach workers how to organize to solve their own problems or to change the social or political systems in which they found themselves, but rather were advocates for workers within the system.  Besides being selected for a high level of energy and physical fitness, labourer-teachers needed to be charismatic and personable, altruistic and upstanding citizens from good homes (which usually meant Protestant), and English-speaking.  Fitzpatrick also believed in the benefits of placing people of privilege in situations where they could truly come to understand the conditions and challenges of the working class.  In doing this, teachers became learners as well, and the hope was that they would go on to be leaders in political and social spheres.  This has certainly been borne out with such examples as Svend Robinson, David Peterson, Roy McMurtry, and Wendell McLeod (Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sasketchewan), who all spent time working as teacher-labourers at Frontier College (Martin 2000: 78).

            Norman Bethune, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario in 1890.   He was descended from four generations of surgeons.  Seriousness and commitment were instilled in him from an early age.  He has been described as a restless man who would challenge the status quo at every opportunity.  In so doing, he alienated many of his work colleagues and social peers.  He was a passionate man with a strong sense of justice who tended to think 'outside of the box' when considering solutions to problems.  During his turbulent lifetime, he challenged the conventional treatments of  tuberculosis, and recognized the social conditions that contributed to it.  He advocated for equal rights to health care and put just as much time and attention on poor patients as on those who could afford to pay for his services.  He revolutionized the way soldiers were medically treated in battle, taking the doctors to the wounded rather than the wounded to the doctors.  He believed strongly in the fight against fascism in the world.  To that end, he joined the Communist party, risking the support of his friends and colleagues in North America.   At the age of 49, Bethune died in China while tending to wounded Chinese soldiers and civilians during the fighting between the Japanese and Chinese.  He contracted blood poisoning while operating on a patient at the front, and because he did not allow himself to rest and heal, his body was unable to fight the infection.  Even in his final days, he was more concerned for the health and safety of others than for himself.  Mao Zedong, in his 1939 essay, "In Memory of Norman Bethune," referred to Bethune's  "utter devotion to others without thought to self" as an ideal to which all Communists should aspire (Shephard and Levesque 1982).

            Bethune has been described as "an angry man, a man roused to anger by stupidity, by bureaucracy, tyranny, brutality, by the contradictions and absurdities of the society around him" (Shephard and Levesque 1982: 82).   As a teacher-labourer at Frontier College, this sense of social justice would have made him an excellent role model for his students.  The conditions that he encountered in the lumber camp and the insights gained from working with men less advantaged than himself must have helped to strengthen his resolve to counter oppression in the world.  The degree to which he adhered to the prescribed curriculum for citizenship education while at Frontier College is difficult to ascertain.  We know that he had wanted to return for a second term of work, but was told that there were no openings.   In retrospect, a criticism of Frontier College in Fitzpatrick's time is that workers were educated to work within the system, rather than to organize to change it.  One wonders if the reason that Bethune was not re-hired was his propensity for challenging the system, which might have made him too radical for Frontier College at the time. Today, Frontier College continues its teacher-labourer program in different parts of Canada, focussing particularly on literacy and English as a second language (ESL), and working primarily with immates and farm labourers.


Martin, Erica, (2000). Action and Advocacy: Alfred Fitzpatrick and the Early History of Frontier College. Unpublished M.A. thesis. Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Shephard, David A.E., & Andree Levesque,  (1982). Norman Bethune: His Times and His Legacy. Ottawa: Canadian Public Health Association.

Wilson, John (1999). Norman Bethune: A Life of Passionate Conviction. Montreal: XYZ Publishing.

Prepared by Kathryn Salisbury (OISE/University of Toronto)

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