How a hyper-diverse East Vancouver school faced Christmas

December 18, 2017

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun |

I’m working on a piece this week that evokes some of the history of Christmas in Metro Vancouver.

The process has reminded me of a feature I wrote for The Sun’s Christmas Eve edition in 2005, which was based on a return to my old East Vancouver elementary school, Sir Richard McBride.

It was exciting to learn how Christmas was marked in a school in which in my day, the early 1960s, almost all students seemed to have English as a first language, with a few speaking German in their homes. (I remember one of my immigrant friends, Helmut, wore lederhosen short pants, with straps, made of leather).

In this era, however, Sir Richard McBride has students who speak more than 22 different languages in their homes, predominantly Chinese, Tagalog, English and Vietnamese. And the kids’ families follow a range of religions, including Sikhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and Buddhism.

I’m taking the opportunity to, for the first time, post my archived McBride School story online. (I suppose I’ll also mention it was part of a package for which I received the James Supple Religion Writer of the Year Award, from the U.S.-based Religion News Association.)

Anyways, here it is …

A multicultural Christmas:

‘Tis the season of Christmas trees and Santa Claus expectations inside the old, red brick walls of Sir Richard McBride elementary on East 29th Avenue in Vancouver.

‘Tis also the season of Silent Night and sparing a thought for the hungry; of children growing excited about big family dinners, multi-coloured lights and piles of gifts.

Just as when I was a kid at Richard McBride in the early 1960s.

Or not.

There are a few differences.

One is that, when I was at McBride, nearly every student was white — with the exception of two Chinese children (one of whom I had a crush on in Grade 2. Vice versa, I like to think.)

Now, the stately three-storey heritage school, built in 1911 and named in honour of a B.C. premier from the early 1900s, is attended by students who speak at least 22 languages in their homes — most of them Asian.

McBride is on the untidy front lines of Canada’s immigration, language and multicultural policies. Even though four out of five of McBride’s 440 students were born in Canada, the vast majority enter kindergarten as English-as-a-second-language students.

Their most common first language is some form of Chinese, spoken in the homes of 172 McBride children.

That’s followed by Tagalog, from the Philippines, which is the language used in 66 McBride students’ homes. Then comes English (60 homes) Vietnamese (58 homes) Punjabi (33 homes) and Tamil (10 homes).

There are also children whose home languages are Urdu, Japanese, Thai, Persian, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Cambodian, or something else.

McBride — located in the middle of a pleasantly jumbled middle-class neighbourhood between Fraser and Knight streets, where small, well-kept heritage homes frequently butt against blocky new houses and unkempt ones — has become one of those urban Canadian public schools that have turned into social laboratories.

Sir Richard McBride school, with Christmas tree and food bank donations. (Files: 2005) PETER BATTISTONI / VANCOUVER SUN

McBride has become a living test case, where all the theorizing about multiculturalism by Canadian and international policy makers, cultural scholars, economists, religious leaders, multiculturalism and the politically correct actually comes to a head.

Is it working?

I went to find out how Christmas is marked at McBride compared with when I was a student, thinking it would be a way to check if Canadian-style multiculturalism is proving effective on the ground, or deteriorating into a grand failure.

Could a public school that mixes large cohorts of Sikh, Hindu, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, ancestor-revering and atheist kids pull off living and learning together, without many people somehow ending up irritated or offended?

Christmas is one of those times that can get up people’s noses as too commercial, too sentimental, too emotionally demanding, too invasive or too Christian.

But I found a lot of Christmas energy flowing at McBride.

My first discovery was that neither I nor the teachers could uncover a single student who didn’t have a Christmas tree at home.

And, despite their mostly Asian ethnic origins, almost every student I interviewed said they would receive at least some gifts, and have some sort of extended family dinner on Christmas Day. When turkey is on the table, they said, it will likely be served with rice, steamed vegetables or curry dishes.

The widespread embracing of elements of Canadian-style Christmas at McBride suggested to me that it’s becoming a secular spiritual festival appreciated by far more than European-rooted Christians.

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