Unlocking Making a Global City

Vipond_MakingaGlobalCityRobert Vipond discusses how Making a Global City: How One Toronto School Embraced Diversity came to be and why we must defend diversity.

This is a book I had no intention of writing.  It is not the culmination of a career-long scholarly interest in the history of public education.  It does not draw on a deep reservoir of research money generated by national granting agencies.  (In fact, my grant proposals were consistently consigned to the purgatory known as SSHRC’s Category 4A – “fundable but not funded.”)  And it does not reflect a burning desire to contribute to a well-established body of literature in my home discipline, political science.  Instead, it owes its existence to a more or less chance conversation I had, in the spring of 2012, with the principal of Clinton Street Public School in Toronto’s west end.  The principal intercepted me one morning after I had dropped my daughter off at her Grade 5 classroom.  “Are you interested in history?,” she asked.  There was, of course, only one possible answer to that question, and before I knew it I had volunteered to be part of the organizing committee for the school’s 125th anniversary in 2013.

Like most parents at Clinton Street School I had a vague sense of the school’s history.  I knew that it had been a “gateway” school for several generations of immigrant families, but I knew precious little about who those families were or what their school life was like.  All that changed when I discovered the school held a complete set of student registration cards covering the period bookended by this study, 1920-1990.  The information contained on these cards made it possible to generate a fine-grained, dynamic, demographic portrait of the school.  And from that portrait I was able to identify three distinct school communities in three distinct historical periods – what I call Jewish Clinton (1920s to early 1950s), southern European Clinton (1950s to mid-1970s), and global Clinton (mid-1970s-1990).

But what to make of this portrait?  What stories did these three Clintons tell?  I was tempted, initially, to use Clinton Street School to understand how the “crucible” of integration actually works.  For the rich sub-discipline of immigration studies, understanding the process of integration is a core question.  Yet most of the work on integration, whether scholarly or popular, deals with adults, not children.  There, perhaps, was my opportunity to make a scholarly contribution.

In the course of conducting about 75 interviews with former students, teachers, and parents, I did indeed learn a lot about what it had been like, on the ground, for immigrant students.  I came to realize, however, that focusing on integration by itself was not really the best way to understand the Clinton experience.   For one thing, if you really want to know whether and how individuals and groups integrate into a society, you have to be able to follow them over the long term.   I couldn’t do that.  I had school records, but I had no systematic way to see my students through to adulthood.  Besides, it struck me that the process of integration itself depends on how you define the goal of that integration.  You need to know what citizenship means (in the broadest sense) before you can measure whether and why immigrants have “made it” to that destination.  But if what it means to “be” Canadian has changed over the years – and it has – then to understand the immigrant experience you have to understand the moving target of citizenship as well.

This is why I ultimately circled back to a subject I have written and thought about a lot over the course of my career, namely citizenship – who belongs, under what terms, and to what end.   And this is why the history of a school like Clinton is so interesting and revealing.  What I came to see is that Clinton Street School was a sort of laboratory for working out what Canadian citizenship means – from the bottom up.  As it turns out, each of the three Clinton communities addressed a signature issue that crystallized ideas about, and kindled controversies surrounding, the definition of citizenship.  Jewish Clinton was provoked by the provincial government’s imposition of system-wide religious instruction in the 1940s in ways that led it to mark the place of religious minorities as equal citizens.  European Clinton began to work out the difference, both in theory and practice, between integration and assimilation, a critical distinction that led directly to the rise of multicultural citizenship.  And Global Clinton, in the face of mounting pressure to include heritage language instruction as a regular part of the curriculum, set about to define the boundaries of multicultural citizenship.

Making a Global City is the history of a single school, but it is easy enough to see the larger story of citizenship in Canada, indeed in liberal democracies more generally, reflected in its pages.  While I was writing it, the Harper government was going to court to prohibit a Muslim woman from wearing a niqab at her citizenship ceremony, Nigel Farage was stirring the anti-immigration pot in the lead up to the Brexit vote, and Donald Trump was making all manner of mischief, first in the Republican primaries, then in the general election campaign.  Immersed as I have been in the history of Clinton Street School, it strikes me that one of the problems with the current debate is that too many people who control too much band width have forgotten why diversity is important, valuable, and worth defending.  For all its faults – and there were many – the three incarnations of Clinton Street School willingly embraced diversity.  Making a Global City is an attempt to recover the reasons why.