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

August 9, 2017

By Marcus Gee, Globe and Mail |

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.

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.

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.

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