Education

The learning fields

At Canada’s “university in overalls,” literacy is all in a day’s work

PETER KUITENBROUWER August 18 1997
Education

The learning fields

At Canada’s “university in overalls,” literacy is all in a day’s work

PETER KUITENBROUWER August 18 1997

The learning fields

At Canada’s “university in overalls,” literacy is all in a day’s work

Education

A scorching noon sun beats down on three young women, dangling their legs from the back of a pickup truck as it bounces along a rutted farm road. Two are sisters: Anna Maria and Maria Dolores Gutierrez have come from Morelos, Mexico, to visit their mother, Delfina, who lives and works on the fruit farm of David and Mary Gibson, just outside Bowmanville, Ont., 80 km east of Toronto.

The third woman is Karen Douglas, an education student at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. This summer, Douglas has signed up for what she calls “the most difficult job of my life.” She is a teacher-laborer at Frontier College, Canada’s oldest national literacy organization. From 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday to Saturday, Douglas works the fields of the Gibson farm, making constant conversation with the Gutierrez sisters and other Mexican workers. Her pay is $7 an hour. Two evenings a week, Douglas and Karen Stille, a recent graduate of Dalhousie University in Halifax, muster their remaining energy to give formal English lessons to 10 visiting workers with whom they share a corrugated metal bunkhouse. ‘This is a ‘city slicker goes hick’ kind of deal,” says Douglas, her clothes covered in

dust, her fingers stained with raspberry juice. “I’m used to eating fast food and shopping in malls.”

Now in its 98th year, the laborer-teacher program is just one of the many efforts undertaken by the 10,000 volunteers of Frontier College, Canada’s self-styled “university in overalls.” Among Frontier’s most prominent programs are roughly 700 “reading circles” that encourage parents and children to work together on literacy skills; Beat the Street, which focuses on homeless youth in downtown Toronto; and the Prison Fiteracy Program, in which university students work one-on-one with inmates of prisons and jails. “Our aim,” says Frontier spokesman Brent Poulton, “has been to reach the people who are very hard to reach.”

Ever since Frontier College was founded, the teacher-laborer program has helped thousands of Canadian immigrants, as well as those visiting the country to work for shorter periods. Originally Frontier’s only outreach program, it was the brainchild of students at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ont., who in 1899 began working alongside laborers in mines, on railroad gangs and in lumber camps throughout Ontario, helping

immigrants find their footing in a new home. Over the years, as it expanded across the country, the program has attracted teacherlaborers who later gained prominence in many fields. Among them: missionary Norman Bethune, former Ontario premier David Peterson, B.C. member of Parliament Svend Robinson and American pediatrician Benjamin Spock.

As the times have changed, so has the program’s focus, now concentrating exclusively on farm laborers. Starting with just one tutor in 1990, the farm program has steadily grown to include 60 students in the current season, working and teaching in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec. There are plans to hire 150 teacher-laborers in 1998. And while the program demands hard work of those who participate, it received applications from more than 500 university students this spring— a level of demand that allows organizers to be highly selective. “We look for people who have really challenged themselves and shown some curiosity for other cultures,” says Poulton. “The vast majority have lived abroad at some point and done community volunteering here at home.”

For students, the benefits can easily outweigh the heavy demands of bringing in the harvest. Stille, whose degree is in Spanish, is heading to Mexico this fall to take part in a seven-month, federally funded internship in the nonprofit sector. The Frontier experience, she says, is giving her a chance to brush up on her Spanish while getting exposure to Mexican culture. “And,” she says, “it twigged my sense of challenge.” The Gibsons, meanwhile, say the tutors have been a welcome addition on their farm, working alongside the resilient Mexican workers to bring in the berries, tomatoes, pumpkins and apples. “It frees our hands,” says David Gibson. “If a worker’s money order gets screwed up in Mexico, Karen can help them fix it up. It’s a buffer.”

Among those who will return to Mexico from the Gibson farm in October is Pablo Mungia, 49, a compact man in a straw hat and sneakers who has worked in Canada every season since 1984. He will return to his family in San Antonio Atotonilco in November, with about $8,500 in his pocket. For three years, Mungia has been slowly improving his English skills—and this spring had his first conversation with his employer. “Every time you get a new word, you move forward,” says Mungia. “If you don’t understand anything, you can fight a lot with the boss.” From his stooped position in the field, Mungia calls out to Stille in Spanish: “Karen, how do you say in English, ‘I need to go around those rows again?” Sweating, exhausted, she calls back: “Pablo, it’s 3 o’clock. It’s break time!” In the farms and fields of Frontier College, even water breaks are a good time to learn.

PETER KUITENBROUWER in Bowmanville