Shining a Light on the Edge of the North Atlantic: Past
by Helen Woodrow and Bill Fagan
Before the invention of schooling, at a time when most people were
book starved and belly hungry, many immigrants travelled to the “New
found land.” Most carried few possessions, but they packed
trunk loads of beliefs and hopes. Some had experienced injustice
in their homeland and they imagined the possibilities for a just
and prosperous future in the fishing colony.
In 1830, five fishermen who settled at Stone Island were charged
for erecting fishing stages near their homes. An English mercantile
firm saw it as an infringement on their access to the resource. The
arguments presented by one of the accused, Edward Keough, probably
reflected the ways we use literacy to protect community. Edward could
not alter how the court viewed the power of the elite. The stages
did remain, however, as the future of the settlement depended on
the production of salt fish. Keough became known as the “Professor
at Stone Island,” even though he never taught. His belief in
the importance of learning was his legacy to the generations to follow.
In 1909, the Fisherman’s Protective Union (FPU), inspired
by the leadership of William Coaker, held its founding convention
(see McDonald). The FPU called for free and compulsory education
for children, and non-denominational schools for the colony’s
small outports. At that time, schools were church controlled and
it wasn’t until the closing years of the century that
the government sought to implement such reforms. The FPU also advocated
for the development of a night-school system for adults.
In 1931, one of the first organized efforts to help adults address
their learning needs was developed by the Newfoundland Adult Education
Association (NAEA). The NAEA was formed on October 31, 1929 during
the visit of Alfred Mansbridge, the President of the World Association
for Adult Education. The membership of the new organization consisted
of senior educational officials and their spouses from the Department
of Education, the school boards, officials of Memorial University
College, and other local educators.
Unlike the FPU reformers, the NAEA was an urban, professional organization
led by representatives of a privileged class. The NAEA implemented
a model for adult education called Opportunity Schools, designed
by American Wil Lou Gray of South Carolina. In Newfoundland, the
Opportunity Schools offered literacy and other classes for adults
at a number of locations throughout the island. Statistics available
from March 1932 (not long before the end of democratic government
in the Dominion of Newfoundland) and June 1935, indicate that 68
schools operated in 40 different communities. Over 2,700 people participated
through night classes and study groups.
One year after the Opportunity School program began, the NAEA
faced serious problems. An article prepared by William Blackall for
the Newfoundland Quarterly ended with a familiar refrain: “I
shall be very thankful if some reader of this Magazine who is in
a position to do so, will help the Newfoundland Adult Education Association
by making a contribution of Two thousand Dollars, or a considerable
portion thereof, as we are sorely in need of funds.” From the
perspective of the present, one might ask if adult literacy educators
are the masters of the “appeal” genre.
By 1936, the Commission of Government’s Department of Home
Affairs and Education had created a division of adult education.
The former president of the NAEA, Vincent Burke, was now the director
of adult education. The division assumed responsibility for the Opportunity
Schools and 33 schools offered various adult classes that year. In
1948, the year prior to Confederation with Canada, 98 schools were
Teacher Sara Coady attracted 31 pupils to the school on Fogo Island
in 1936 (see Luedee). Like Zephlia Horton of the Highlander Folk
School in Tennessee, Coady used music to make the vital link between
culture and learning. The division of adult education would also
attract an employee who was the first person to receive a doctorate
in adult education in British North America. Florence or Florrie
O’Neill of Witless Bay had
taught miners on Bell Island in 1928 at the request of the Dominion
Steel and Coal Company. The work on Bell Island might be one of the
first examples of industrial workplace literacy in the province.
However, it was O’Neill’s time working
with school-aged children during the Depression, and her thoughts
on what we now call family literacy, that led her to commit to adult
Under O’Neill’s administration, housewives, laundresses
and flotation workers at the Buchans Night School wrote articles
for Further Education. Adult education teachers worked with
loggers at 121/2 Camp at Millertown and Whalen’s Camp at Bishop’s
Falls. On Bell Island it was reported that one student who was called
upon to work an evening shift paid a man to work in his place so
he could attend night school.
O’Neill echoed Stamp’s belief that the purpose of adult
education was threefold: to help people earn a living; to help people
live a life; and to help people mould the world (Stamp, in Selman).
She also called for changes in the denominational education system.
Like Coaker, O’Neill wasn’t against religion; she just
wanted people, particularly those living in rural Newfoundland, to
have a better education system. Why have three denominational schools
in a community, for example, when one school could provide much better
service to all pupils? Her doctoral thesis envisioned a structure
for community adult education that responded to more than individual
learning needs. O’Neill’s
adult education plan was never implemented by the department (see
Can we truly understand O’Neill without considering the context
in which she worked? She was a well-educated woman, forthright and
assertive. At the time, only single women could be employed in government,
and O’Neill worked in a sea of men. She fought many battles
for her staff and this made her male superiors a little annoyed.
At that time, for example, division staff included film projectionists,
who were generally male and received a better salary than teachers,
who were mainly female. Projectionists also received travel allowances,
while teachers paid their own expenses. Teachers who boarded in Corner
Brook and taught at the tuberculosis hospital were charged for the
meals they ate at their workplace during working hours. The government
argued that it couldn’t be “taken advantage of,” even
though the cost of meals cut into the teachers’ meagre salaries.
O’Neill proposed that the Tuberculosis Association pay the
cost of the food, but the government viewed that as remuneration
from another employer.
O’Neill’s last days with the government of Newfoundland
were as the director of the 4-H clubs. She toiled away in a basement
office without natural light, fresh air or a budget to run her program.
She was recruited to work as a director of adult education for the
federal Department of Indian Affairs in Ottawa and, with much regret,
left Newfoundland in 1962. Florence O’Neill died in Ottawa
Where are we now?
Adult literacy educators in Newfoundland and Labrador have rarely
had an opportunity to come together with colleagues from across the
province. In November 2007, over 70 learners, college instructors,
community program staff, volunteers and other literacy educators
attended the Institute on Excellence in Adult Literacy Practice.
Delegates had an opportunity to explore emerging programs in the
community and the workplace, and examine particular issues faced
by Aboriginal and multicultural initiatives. Workshops covered a
variety of topics including proposal writing, building effective
partnerships, conducting informal assessment and recognizing prior
In her opening keynote address, “Finding the Cracks Where
the Light Shines Through,” Helen Woodrow examined historical
and contemporary responses to literacy in Newfoundland and Labrador,
and reviewed some of the recent research from the US, UK and Canada.
Helen traced the history of literacy to the present and ended by
encouraging participants to capture their perspective on the local
landscape by sharing a sentence or poem, a painting or sketch. Pointing
to a large sheet of newsprint posted at the back of the room, she
urged delegates to make their insights and knowledge visible. She
also invited them to join a group to write an article about the literacy
landscape. Unfortunately the writing had to be done over Christmas,
when tradition dictates that work is shed for celebration. That dampened
in the task and Bill Fagan was the only volunteer.
To prepare this article, Helen and Bill worked independently, through
content analysis, to categorize the more than 30 responses into seven
categories. The number of responses to each is indicated in parentheses:
bureaucracy (9), supports (6), community (4), collaboration (4),
age cohorts (4), advocacy (1) and leadership (1). Interestingly,
all of these categories are embedded in the story of adult education
in Newfoundland and Labrador. Certainly they are the highlights of
Florence O'Neill's story. Present-day adult literacy stakeholders
still see bureaucracy as a key issue. One participant wrote:
I see government and policy-makers increasingly exercising control
over my community....We are not people who need taking care of.
knowledge about where we want to go. We need to make government
answerable to us, not the other way around. Why do we always give
them control? Why are we always afraid to speak?
The participants were also aware of the need for supports in adult
education/literacy programs and addressed this concern as follows:
Learners get lost in a system where the supports are not in place
for transition— [they are] expected to complete in three years
what everyone else completes in 12. There seem to be no strategies
aimed at improving [ABE students’] reading levels. Many
times they drop out or are discontinued due to this. Something
needs to be put in place to help them improve their reading while
they work toward their goals.
Some expressed the need to focus on older as well as younger adults.
What is also interesting is that advocacy and leadership merited
only one comment each. These are very much tied together in the sense
that leadership often takes an advocacy role. The one comment categorized
as advocacy proposed that Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador (LNL)
should take this role. Yet, in the current climate, any evidence
of advocacy will result in a loss of financial support from the federal
government. The one comment on leadership noted that a broader vision
must be adopted. One cannot help but recall Florence O'Neill's support
for a three-pronged comprehensive approach to adult education—the
focus on earning a living, living a life and moulding the world.
Except for LNL, no other organization or individual was named in
a leadership capacity. Since bureaucracy was so strongly cited by
participants, is it possible that bureaucratic presence is stifling
leadership? One participant expressed a fear of not meeting criteria
set down by government. That same pressure also explains what has
happened to advocacy. What are the conditions for leadership? How
can the adult literacy field help generate and support these conditions?
Are there leaders but, because of time constraints and other factors,
they are not able to make the impact they would wish? After all,
great leaders in Newfoundland history, like Florence O'Neill and
William Coaker, did not see their plans to fruition.
Perhaps we need to know and rethink the past before moving forward.
This paper has sketched a few historical threads, but there are many
more people who are important to our literacy story on the eastern
edge of the Atlantic. We invite other adult literacy educators to
document important historical moments in their landscapes. Allan
Quigley, who wrote in Literacies #7,
is part of this effort. We believe it is important to understand
more about the people who created learning opportunities for adults
in Canada's past and how we may learn from them. If you are interested
or want to know more, please contact Helen at 709-753-8815 or email
HELEN WOODROW is an adult educator who has spent
close to twenty years in the field of literacy. She has designed
numerous professional development programs and engaged with learners,
graduates, drop-outs, tutors and instructors on education and research
in practice projects. This work has led to learner anthologies and
memoirs, oral histories from the fishing industry, and educational
resources. Helen was a member of the national research team examining
research in practice in adult literacy in Canada, and co-edited Focused
on Practice (2006).
WILLIAM T. FAGAN has been, and is, a teacher, school
principal, university professor, researcher, psychologist, clinical
reading specialist, member and president of a Community Centre Board,
town councillor, and parent literacy advocate. He is the author of
seven literacy programs, Professor Emeritus at the University of
Alberta and Adjunct Professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
“Assistant Director of Adult Education Addresses Rotary”. Newfoundland
Government Bulletin Feb-March 1952, p. 20.
Blackall, W.W. (1932). Adult education in Newfoundland. Newfoundland
Layman, G. (1994). That part of my life. St. John’s:
Harry Cuff Publications.
“Letters”. (1949). Atlantic Guardian 6 (11),
Luedee, J. (2003).“For the rehabilitation of this country”:
Adult education in Newfoundland, 1933-1946. Honours dissertation
(BA), Memorial University of Newfoundland.
McDonald, I. (1987). "To each his own" : William
Coaker and the Fishermen's Protective Union in Newfoundland politics,
1908-1925. St. John's, NF: ISER Books.
McManus, K. (2000). Florence O’Neill, A Newfoundland adult
educator: Alone in the wilderness. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.
O’Neill, F. (1944) A plan for the development of an adult
education program for rural Newfoundland: a report of a type B
project. Unpublished doctoral dissertation,Columbia University,
________Adult education in our democracy. Newfoundland Government
Bulletin Feb-March 1952, p. 30. Newfoundland Court Records
Collection GN/5/2/C11 Box 164.