Meeting Joey: A Memory of Being a Frontier College Labourer‐Teacher in Newfoundland, 1951
I became a social worker largely as a result of my experience as a Labourer‐Teacher with Frontier College in 1951. My interest in community development and planning, and in particular in social and economic conditions, began that summer in Newfoundland.
In the dark, early hours of the morning, I was dropped off from a slow‐moving baggage car of the Caribou Express besides the siding at Butt’s Pond gravel pit. No one met me and all I could see was the glow from the boiler of a parked locomotive. I climbed up to the cab, where a young man was dozing. His job was to stoke the fire. Upon being disturbed, he recalled that a few days previous he was told to expect a teacher and that an old boxcar with benches was also being delivered. That was all. He showed me to a bunk in another car.
Most of the dozen or so gravel pit miners belonged to the skilled trades and a union. In the evening they preferred poker or trouting to reading or arithmetic. Two weeks after arriving, I moved some fifteen miles up the track to the lift gang at Alexander Bay where the gravel was delivered. I eventually learned that the Butt’s Pond gang had been bothered when they saw me writing in the mandatory Frontier College register. They assumed that I was making notes about the union and particularly the Butt’s Pond foreman. Attitudes improved after someone opened my suitcase to read the register when I was away shoveling gravel.
No space was available on the lift gang siding for the boxcar, so a tent was pitched beside the track, the benches were relocated, and classes began.
Many of the men had difficulty articulating the possibilities of change for themselves as a result of more schooling. The various out‐ports where they came from were relatively isolated and not accessible by road, making it hard to conceive of a life other than what they already knew. Day‐to‐day life was very different from today.
It’s easy to recall the broad goals and approaches to learning that Dr. Bradwin expected from Labourer‐Teachers, as well as his emphasis on initiative and imagination. I recall the soft‐covered texts, maps and letters delivered to me. It was deciding just how to use them was a challenge.
Before I could teach, the men needed first to size me up during the work day, during meal times and after hours evenings and weekends. I recall coming to a point where I identified two categories: the men’sʹ ages and their previous schooling. Then I sifted out some levels of wants; perhaps this is pertinent to the theme of changing lives through literacy.
The youngest among the interested men were about age 16 to 18 and comprised my first level for teaching. They perceived the FC tent‐school as a place to refresh and fill‐in some of the learning recalled from attending primary school. They clearly saw it as an opportunity. None had attended a secondary school. I remember being particularly impressed by eight or so young men who came very regularly and by their expectations for moving beyond the place of being functionally literate. Many more came to the tent school sporadically. These men could acknowledge their lapses in remembering, their desire to learn about the Mainland and elsewhere, and sometimes their feelings as a result of dropping out of primary school. The classes helped improve spelling, writing, basic arithmetic, geography and perhaps confidence in the students as learners. Many of the donated books and magazines that arrived regularly from Toronto were well‐used and were especially welcomed as teaching aids.
Those in the 18 to 21 age group comprised a second level and shared the objective of learning a skilled trade and qualifying for membership as a skilled worker in the railway workersʹ union. They knew they had a problem and what they needed to do to address it. [The income gap was real between those working on the lift and those employed in an organized railway trade or in mining at the nearby gravel pit.] Among the men in this level, the major motivation in coming to the tent had more to do with accessing information about vocational and trades training, for securing and completing application forms and, later, for letters to support their admission for trades training and, sometimes, applications for secondary school education and financial assistance.
I was also there when form letters arrived commenting on the absence of high school certificates and when potential learners were put on waiting lists for the few trade schools and adult education classes available from the then‐new Provincial Government. I learned that I was naive to believe that advertisements for adult education could deliver on demand and that I myself needed to become more informed about what I was encouraging.
The older men on the lift comprised a third level. Often these frequently illiterate elders advocated for the tent school in the face of disinterest and negativity from younger workers. The older men’s endorsement proved important. I learned that the wisdom and values of these “uncles” sometimes impacted on the younger men.
The youthful lift gang members often had a chip on their shoulder, perhaps due to their perceived failures in primary school and separateness from important personal relationships. Their goal was a regular pay envelope. Many worked year after year on the lift and were grateful for the opportunity of a regular job. They saw few alternatives.
Late one afternoon, Newfoundland Premier Joey Smallwood’s private coach was shunted on to a nearby siding until it could be attached to the next freight. I was delegated by the gang to escort Joey around during his stop on a pre‐election campaign. On our walk together, I told how the lift gang felt they were underpaid for the difficult work they did on the track six days a week. The next morning, the roadmaster delivered a telegram from the CNR Montreal headquarters that a five‐cents‐an‐hour increase was approved. To this day, I marvel how the CNR Corporation from Montreal could so quickly affect a pay increase for a single unorganized lift gang. NO lengthy studies and negotiations!
While making casual conversation on the scenic beauty of the cove, the Premier’s response was something to the effect about how the beauty of the place would mean one thing for me who would soon been returning to McGill and Montreal, but another for those who lived in the nearby isolated outports without access to a hospital and up‐ to‐date schools.
I left Newfoundland with many memories. One was the acquaintance of many of the younger workers who taught me to lift rails and to shovel and tamp gravel properly, and also who exchanged and shared opinions in the meal car, especially on weekends with the few who stayed behind Friday nights. Another memory is the surprise party organized the night before the express was flagged down and I departed to meet Bob Lindsey, another Frontier College Labourer‐Teacher, to return home together and proceed on to report to Dr. Bradwin in Toronto. Lastly, there are the letters dated in the wintertime 1951‐52 from people I had worked with and taught, and who enriched my life and widened my perspectives.