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How Toronto’s Clinton Street Public School became a historical immigrant gateway

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A road map for immigration: How one school showed the way

For newcomers, Toronto's Clinton Street Public School was neither melting pot nor mosaic, Marcus Gee writes

A Clinton Street Public School class photo with cadets in front, 1920.

Robert Vipond was dropping off his daughter at Clinton Street Public School one morning in 2012 when the principal took him aside and asked, "Are you interested in history?" She was organizing the school's 125th anniversary celebration and wondered if the noted University of Toronto political science professor wanted to help.

She took him to a small room off the main office. It was full of steel cabinets holding thousands and thousands of student registration cards going back decades. In most cases, the 3-by-5-inch cards held the child's name, date of birth, birthplace and address – as well the names, dates of birth, occupations and religion of their parents. The social scientist in Prof. Vipond shouted: Gold mine!

The roughly 22,000 cards would give him a unique window into the history and evolution of the downtown Toronto school, an immigrant gateway for much of the 20th century. That in turn might lead to some insights into how Toronto – and Canada – managed to absorb so many newcomers with so little strife, now a topical subject in the time of Trump, Brexit, populism and rising hostility to immigrants in some parts of the world.

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In each of the phases in Clinton’s immigrant history, the school struggled with the age-old question of how the newcomers were to be integrated into the local and national community.

Prof. Vipond assembled an eager team of young aides to input, sort and analyze all the data on the cards. The result is his new book, Making a Global City: How One Toronto School Embraced Diversity. It looks at three eras in the school's history: Jewish Clinton (1920-1952), European Clinton (1950-1975) and Global Clinton (1975-1990).

When the school was founded in 1888, Toronto was far from multicultural. Ninety-five per cent of the city's residents were Canadian- or British-born, according to the 1891 census. It was still much the same at the end of the First World War, when 90 per cent of Clinton students had parents who were either established residents of Canada or immigrants from the British Isles.

A household science class, 1920s, from what Robert Vipond calls the Jewish Clinton era.

But in the 1920s, the school went through a remarkable change. In 1920, about 10 per cent of the student body was Jewish. By 1930, the figure was 50 per cent. For the next 20 years, the proportion of Jews never fell below half and sometimes exceeded 70 per cent.

Some of the kids were first-generation immigrants, born abroad. Others were the children of an earlier wave from Eastern Europe that arrived in the first years of the 20th century. Many Jews landed in poor downtown neighbourhoods, then moved west to newer housing near the garment factories of Spadina Avenue, where thousands found work.

A classroom photo, 1959-1960, in the midst of the European Clinton era.

The next wave of transformation broke over Clinton with equal suddenness. Increasingly prosperous, Jews started moving "up the hill" to more spacious neighbourhoods. Italians, in the 1950s, then Portuguese, in the 1960s, took their place. In 1953, 35 per cent of incoming students were Jewish and 35 per cent were Catholic. Just seven years later, only 5 per cent were Jewish and 75 per cent were Catholic.

When the Italians and Portuguese began to disperse as well, new immigrants from East Asia, Latin America and other parts of the world produced Global Clinton, "a polyglot, hyper-diverse, multicultural school that had no parallel before and that has not been rivalled since," Prof. Vipond writes. A growing number of "Canadian" kids joined the mix – "the children of young, professional couples who were returning to the very downtown neighbourhoods their parents left behind."

In each of these phases in Clinton's immigrant history, the school struggled with the age-old question of how the newcomers were to be integrated into the local and national community. Jewish Clinton faced a kind of crisis in the 1940s when Progressive Conservative Premier George Drew made every public school teach religion. Lessons stressed the glories of Christianity. Many Jews naturally felt aggrieved. Anti-Semitism was commonplace at the time. Every Jewish Clinton student that Prof. Vipond interviewed had a story about confronting some form of prejudice in those days.

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Clinton responded by more or less ignoring the provincial decree. None of the graduates Prof. Vipond spoke with could even remember religion classes. As he puts it in the book, "The decision to take a pass on religious instruction was an act of local resistance, inspired by parents and carried out by teachers."

In European Clinton, the biggest challenge was language. Many of the students arriving with their families from Italy or Portugal had little or no English. At one point, 60 per cent of the students were first-generation immigrants, a historic peak for the school. Clinton responded by pioneering English as a second language (ESL) lessons, often taking students away from regular classes for set periods of English instruction.

Little Italy, World Cup celebrations 1970. During the European Clinton era of Clinton Street Public School’s history, children of Italian and Portuguese immigrants began arriving at the school in large numbers.

The overall aim, as it had been for decades, was to assimilate newcomers, to fold them neatly into the mainstream. The onus was on newcomers to adapt to Canadian ways. As Prof. Vipond notes, Gabriella often became Gail, Luigi became Louis. But the era of official multiculturalism was dawning, and attitudes were starting to change.

In Global Clinton, unlike Jewish or European Clinton, no single group predominated. Five regional and national clusters – Canada, Italy, Portugal, East Asia and Latin America – each accounted for at least 10 per cent of the student body by the early to middle 1980s. There were students of many other backgrounds as well. More than 40 different languages were spoken in Clinton homes.

A raging debate broke out during this era over "heritage language" classes. Authorities were introducing after-school classes to help students keep up their home languages. This was in line with the new thinking that, rather than immersing immigrants in the proverbial melting pot, Canada should let them hold on to old-country cultures. But when progressive educators tried to introduce heritage-language classes during school time, many parents objected – not because they were our-way-or-the-highway Canadian nativists, but because they felt the idea was being rammed down their throats. They prevailed, but Clinton embraced multiculturalism in other ways, like publishing report cards in several languages and hiring multilingual staff.

Prof. Vipond doesn't reach any grand conclusions about the right and wrong ways to integrate newcomers. At Clinton, it was often a matter of simply muddling through. "Finding the right balance at Clinton between acculturation and adaptation was all part of the daily routine."

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Students at their desks in 1978, during the Global Clinton era.

Without ever setting out a policy, Clinton found a middle path – neither melting pot nor mosaic. Canada may not expect immigrants to conform to a rigid code or cultural norm, but it still wants to be considered more than just a nice hotel, a place for new arrivals to hang their hats.

Today, with most immigrants landing in the suburbs instead of downtown, Clinton is actually less of a gateway than the average Toronto school. About one in 10 students was born outside Canada, the lowest figure since the 1940s. But its example remains. "In embracing diversity," Prof. Vipond writes, "schools like Clinton put hope before fear."

Generation after generation of kids went through Clinton's doors as immigrants and came out as Canadians. That transformation, happening now in hundreds of schools all over Toronto, is one of those commonplace miracles that never cease to amaze.

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