Multiculturalism in practice in a Mississauga school

The multiculturalism debate rages on. In The New Republic in February, Indian-born Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen warned of “the disastrous consequences of defining people by their religious ethnicity and giving priority to the community-based perspective over all other identities.”1 Here in Canada, the March issue of The Walrus carried the provocative cover line “Face It!: Forget Quebec, Our Crisis is Multicultural.” Inside the magazine, prominent pollster Allan Gregg gave readers a tour of intercultural conflict zones, from the London underground to the banlieues of Paris to the beaches of Australia.2 The London bombings indicated that Britain’s policy of encouraging immigrants to retain their traditions had not succeeded, but the riots in France’s banlieues showed that that country’s strongly assimilationist policy had not worked any better.

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As for Canada, Gregg detected a growing accumulation of disturbing signs:

Twenty years ago, roughly half of the immigrant population gravitated to Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. Today, nearly 80 percent does – and this is 80 percent of a much larger total. Within these growing urban centres, immigrant groups are clustering in tightly knit, ethnically homogeneous neighbourhoods partly because, according to the government’s own studies, many ethnic groups feel out of place in Canada. Their first loyalty is to their group, and, against a history of the children of immigrants “moving out,” today there is an increasing concentration of visible-minority groups “staying home,” staying alien to host cultures and having little sense of civic nationalism.3

Is Gregg’s picture an accurate one: is Canadian multiculturalism doomed to live out the consequences predicted in Sen’s dire warning? Or does the fact that we have so far avoided overt conflict indicate that Canada is doing something right? In this article I look at the experience of an elementary school in Mississauga, Ontario, where this seems to be the case: where multiculturalism shows signs of working.

The mouse that barked

It is a late afternoon in May in the library of Thornwood Public School, a K–5 school on a winding street in central Mississauga in Peel Region west of Toronto. A Spanish-speaking parent is reading The Barking Mouse,4 a bilingual Spanish-English story based on a Cuban folktale, to a mixed audience of children, their parents, high school students, teachers and York University researchers. Her young son Gabriel translates the Spanish into English for the audience, which includes speakers of Hindi, Urdu, Arabic and other languages as well as English. Gabriel is increasingly animated as he gets into the drama of a story, which concerns a family of ratónes, mice, who have foolishly provoked a gato, a cat. As the group discusses options for the mice, Gabriel suggests that apologizing to the cat might be the best strategy. In the story, however, Mamá Ratón ultimately rescues her family by barking at the cat, which turns tail and runs away. The punch line is: “You see, kids, it pays to speak another language!”

The reading of the story is part of a program called Parent Involvement AS Education (PIE), run as a collaboration between York University and the Peel District School Board at Thornwood and two other Mississauga schools (Floradale, a K–6 elementary school, and Glenhaven, a senior middle school). Earlier in the same session, project director Dr. John Ippolito of York poses the question: What languages is it important to learn? Is it important to know English? Is it important to know other languages? Why? Is English more important than other languages? “Yes,” comments one father. “I am able to communicate because I know English.” No, say others – English is equal to other languages. A question about whether students should learn English and other languages elicits a consensus in the affirmative. It is not only the immigrant parents who are engaged by this topic. Principal Diane Knowlton evokes her childhood as a francophone in Quebec, where she learned English to communicate with her anglophone neighbours. York education professor Sandra Schecter comments on her sons having had to learn Hebrew for their bar mitzvahs. A teacher laments how her connection to her heritage has been severed with the loss of the Japanese language.

Thornwood frankly defines itself as a multilingual school. A 2003 survey revealed that more than 40 languages were represented in the school, with English as mother tongue of roughly a third of the school population; Arabic, Hindi, Tamil and Urdu another third; and a panoply of languages from Albanian to Vietnamese representing the last third. A number of Thornwood’s teachers, including those most centrally involved in the PIE project, are themselves members of minority groups and share a culture with many of their students. Many of the materials on display on the school walls are in multiple languages. Dual-language books are prominent on the library shelves. Morning announcements are in English and one other language, with the second language rotating through the year.

A drive through the periphery

The high-rise apartment buildings, modest single-family houses, strip malls and wide streets that make up Thornwood’s neighbourhood could be virtually anywhere in a vast area surrounding downtown Toronto. Consisting almost entirely of farms and villages at the end of World War II, this area – comprising the regions of Durham, York, Peel and Halton and large parts of the former suburban municipalities that were incorporated into the amalgamated City of Toronto – is now home to several million people, and continues to grow. Mississauga, which did not yet exist when Thornwood was built in 1973 (it was incorporated the following year), has a current population of 625,000, making it Canada’s sixth largest municipality.

We have two contrasting images for areas of this kind on the periphery of major cities. One of these images comes from France and was brought to the world’s television screens by last fall’s riots. Bearing the innocent-sounding names of banlieues (suburbs) and cités, the peripheral zones of France’s cities are inhabited largely by Muslims with roots in France’s former North African colonies and are seen as cauldrons of crime, violence, sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamism and other evils. What most worries the French is what they term communautarisme, an inward-looking focus on one’s own community to the exclusion of the country as a whole. A teacher describes the situation in a banlieue school where more than 70 per cent of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds:

One of the only positive points of identification the students have is their identification with their country of origin and especially their religion (they have also created a sense of solidarity by identifying as “prisoners,” trapped in a foreign culture). It is therefore understandable that these teenagers feel such a strong pull toward their culture of origin. But this approach, while perhaps transitory (maybe also transitional), has significant repercussions, especially when the original culture advocates hatred of Western civilization. This hatred leads to into guilt and self-loathing, since these young people are, after all, born in France and largely Westernized themselves.5

The second, contrasting image comes from “exurbs” in the United States, which are seen as cleaner, quieter, whiter, more Christian and more Republican than the central cities and older suburbs. One of the few writers who has taken an interest in these areas is the witty and right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks:

The places have no past, no precedent, no settled conventions. The residents have no families or connections here. There are no ethnic enclaves to settle into, and no friends. Sometimes people move here without even a job … And while they are making a radical change in their lives, they are really pursuing a conservative vision. It is no accident that people in the exurbs, while instinctively apolitical and often cynical about the political process, are, when they vote, instinctively Republican …

The exurbs are built to embody a modern version of the suburban ideal. Demographic studies show that they look like 1950s suburban America – intact two-parent families, 2.3 kids, low crime, and relatively low divorce rates. You sometimes get the impression that these people have fled their crowded and stratified old suburbs because they really want to live in an updated Mayberry with BlackBerries.6

Brooks writes about Mesa, Arizona, on the periphery of metropolitan Phoenix. Mesa’s estimated 2004 population was 437,454, up more than 10 per cent since the 2000 census, and now larger than Minneapolis, St. Louis or Cincinnati.7 This growth is consistent with 2005 Census Bureau population estimates showing the fastest growth occurring in exurban counties.8 Mesa is 73.2 per cent “White Non-Hispanic” – compared with only 55.8 per cent in Phoenix proper.9 In its March/April 2006 issue, Where to Retire magazine identified Mesa as an ideal location for politically conservative retirees.10

With France’s banlieues, Toronto’s periphery shares a large population with origins in the global South; with the American exurbs, it shares the newness, the lack of settled conventions and the explosive growth. But it doesn’t really correspond to either stereotype. These communities are neither ghettos for a single ethnic group nor havens for white flight. Politically they tend neither to Islamic radicalism nor to conservative reaction. In defiance of the Conservative victory in the 2006 federal election, a sea of Liberal red, interrupted only by three patches of NDP orange in downtown Toronto, stretches from Oakville in the west to Newmarket and Aurora in the north to Pickering and Ajax in the east. And in contrast to France, where minorities are almost entirely unrepresented in the political system, three of Peel Region’s seven members of the Ontario legislature and four of its eight members of the federal House of Commons are of South Asian origin. A fifth federal MP is a Syrian born in Saudi Arabia.

Often dismissively referred to by residents of older communities as urban sprawl, Toronto’s periphery is nevertheless a destination of choice for people from all over the world. Mississauga’s census figures for visible minorities (40 per cent), foreign-born population (47 per cent) and people with mother tongues other than English or French (44 per cent) are only marginally lower than those for Toronto (42, 49 and 46 per cent respectively). In the federal riding of Mississauga East–Cooksville, where Thornwood Public School is located, the figures are even higher: 44 per cent visible minorities, 57 per cent immigrants and 54 per cent with mother tongues other than English or French. And in rapidly growing Markham, northeast of Toronto, 55 per cent of the residents are visible minorities, 53 per cent are foreign-born and 50 per cent have a mother tongue other than English or French.11

“The centre cannot hold the diversity,” says Sandra Schecter. She rejects the common characterization of poor minority neighbourhoods as “inner city,” and points out that in Toronto poor people are just as likely to live in the periphery while people often move downtown when their circumstances improve. Schecter lives and works in different parts of the former suburban municipality of North York and travels twice a week to her schools in Mississauga; her daily routines take her through a wide swath of this extensive and diverse area.

The initial collaboration

York University, located on the boundary separating Toronto from the burgeoning City of Vaughan to the north, has only slowly awakened to the implications of its location. It saw its hinterland as being the largely black Jane-Finch corridor, which borders the campus to the southwest, but the idea of serving the broader periphery was a novelty when Schecter initiated her first action research project in the late 1990s. The project, Situating Learning in Home, School and Community, was a collaboration involving Schecter, Jim Cummins of the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education and the Peel School Board. The researchers were interested in children’s language learning and started with the basic theoretical orientation that diversity should be viewed as a resource rather than a problem. Cummins had been in the forefront of research indicating that literacy in English is enhanced, not hindered, by literacy in another language.12 A board official, Paul Shaw, helped them find two schools to work in, Thornwood and Floradale.

At Thornwood, activities included a multilingual reception protocol for new students, many of whom had just come to Canada and arrived in the middle of the school year; a writing project for new immigrant students; dual-language books; and storytelling sessions. The reception protocol involved an orientation book and game as well as family meetings with the principal and an English as a Second Language teacher (often facilitated by a translator or multilingual staff member) to determine the student’s educational background and level of English-language proficiency

The project led to a book, edited by Schecter and Cummins and published by a leading U.S. educational publisher.13 In it, Thornwood teacher Patricia Chow describes what happened as the staff and students awaited the arrival of some commercially produced dual-language books they had ordered:

The delays in delivery eventually made us so impatient that we decided to make our own original dual-language stories. I had gone to the Mississauga Central Library to check out dual-language books for my class to provide models of what we were aiming for. My students were fascinated with them and enthusiastically took up the challenge to make their own.

The stories were written in English by my grade one students and translated by their parents or by older bilingual students in the school. By creating these books with the help of teachers, friends, and family, the students had the opportunity to explore their language and English in a developmentally appropriate way. The parents were wonderfully supportive!14

For an end-of-year storytelling morning to celebrate the diversity of languages in the school, a teacher, Brenda Wong, volunteered to do storytelling in Cantonese and English, and a parent who had been very supportive of the program, Mrs. Ismail, was invited to tell a story in Arabic and English. “We chose Arabic because our survey had shown it to be the most frequently spoken home language (other than English) of the school community,” Chow notes. “We discussed with Mrs. Ismail the choice of the dual-language book to use as the basis of the storytelling and together decided on It’s Mine , a book with elaborate illustrations and appealing story content for young readers. Mrs. Ismail offered to make large cardboard animals to represent the characters in the story.” Mrs. Ismail did a successful trial run in a kindergarten class where many of the students spoke Arabic as their home language. Then, on the storytelling day, four storytelling stations were set up in the school and students rotated through the stations:

The sessions were received enthusiastically by a large majority of the students. Brenda Wong reported that her Cantonese-speaking students told her afterward that they were surprised and thrilled to hear a story told in Cantonese in an “English” school. They were proud that their home language could be heard by their teachers and peers. In some of the sessions, children showed curiosity toward other languages by asking for equivalents of familiar English vocabulary terms such as good morning, family, school, and friends.15

Making it multigenerational

The eager response to activities like the dual-language books and storytelling sessions helped make teachers aware of the resources the parents could bring to the school; in Schecter’s words, it “unlocked the treasure trove” of their skills and knowledge. Trying to bridge the gap between the “English” school and the Arabic- or Tamil- or Russian-speaking home was of prime importance to the teachers and researchers. For this to happen, it was essential that children see that their parents were welcomed and valued in the school. “The real problem,” Schecter told a York research forum in November 2005, “was that children were ashamed of their parents.” Or as one parent put it, “My children feel embarrassed when we speak our native language in public. They say, ‘Shhh, speak English.” Unless the school valued what the parents had to offer, the kids wouldn’t either. A successful multicultural initiative, Schecter and her colleagues concluded, also needed to be multigenerational.

Parent Involvement AS Education began in the fall of 2003 – the conjunction speaks to the participants’ conviction that the parents’ presence is not simply an adjunct to the educational process but an integral part of it. The program began with three stated goals – to familiarize immigrant parents with the education system and involve them in a participatory and advocacy role, to enhance the students’ learning and achievement through collaboration between parents and schools and to promote an institutional climate that values diversity as a resource.

Various activities take place during the two hours (roughly 3:30 to 5:30) of a typical weekly PIE afternoon. High school students meet with the children for schoolwork and recreation. Parents participate in a workshop with a teacher, university researcher or invited guest. The whole group gets together for reading, interactive learning, Scrabble or computer games. Parents talk informally among themselves about jobs and other topics of common interest. A settlement worker, whose job it is to help ease immigrants’ transition by providing translation and information about government and community services, is there to answer questions.16 And of course there are snacks – as a Jewish mother, Schecter is sensitive to the need to keep children fed at this hour of the day.

The high school tutors’ participation began when students’ teenage siblings at nearby T.L. Kennedy Secondary School found out about the project. High school students in Ontario are required to log 40 hours of volunteer time, and PIE represented an opportunity for them to fulfil this requirement. Involvement has since spread to several other high schools. The teenage tutors read with the students and help them choose books and find appropriate material on the Internet. Tutor and student often share a common home language, making communication easier. One tutor wrote in her reflective journal after a session,

I worked with Sanam …We read a book named Fishing Day. It was all about fishing with a mother and a daughter. I explained to him some hard words in our own language. He speaks Urdu and I speak Hindi. We can understand each other’s language. I explained to him page by page and picture by picture. We finished half the book in the library and then he had to go home early because his brother is fasting in Ramadan. He asked me questions about Diwali. He told me that he only fasts on weekends. Today, I played with him in a gym. He likes basketball.

Parents help choose the topics of the workshops, which reflect the project’s multiple goals: “Guide to the Ontario School System”, “The Ontario Report Card”, “The Parent-Teacher Interview”, “Promoting Your Child’s Writing”, “Coping with Stress”, “Turn Math into Family Fun”, “Use Your First Language to Help Boost Language Skills.” Many of the topics reflect the parents’ desire to understand the school’s way of doing things, which often differs from practice in the countries they have come from, but the project’s designers do not want it to become simply a means for parents to comply with the agenda of the school.

Math presents a common manifestation of this problem, with parents unable to help their kids with their homework because they don’t understand the way math is taught at the school. At a PIE session at Floradale, teacher facilitators Tim Yu and Michelle Smith posed a math problem and asked parents to think about how they might “work this out with kids at home” if it were a homework question. In small groups, the parents tackled the problem in different ways – some using the blocks provided by the facilitators, others making diagrams, still others talking it through – and then presented their various approaches. “This is how we would do this math in my country,” one parent began. When all the strategies had been explained, Yu concluded,

I know many of you get frustrated when your children tell you that you can’t help them with their homework because you do math differently from the “school way,” but this is simply not the case. Students should be able to explain the problem-solving they do using any way … Work out the differences and do it any way, even if it’s different from the way we do it at school. We want your children to know your way and be able to explain problems using more than one method.

Taking it on the road

There are pitfalls. At the senior middle school that was the first site for the project, it absorbed an existing board-sponsored remedial program, Counting on You. This had financial and administrative advantages, but it gave the program a remedial stamp, unlike at Thornwood and Floradale where the organizers’ message that the purpose of the program is enrichment has been more successfully absorbed and disseminated.

The organizers are also happy to have board consultants or teachers not directly involved in the program give presentations, as it increases the stake that the board and the school have in the program. But these invited guests are not always sensitive to the issues the organizers have struggled with, and sometimes adopt a style and approach for which my own kids, during their school years, coined the word teachery – didactic and condescending. To avoid this, program organizers had to develop a set of guidelines for presenters and facilitators. This document specifies that “we view our program as an enrichment initiative that builds on and expands the broad range of literacy, numeracy, and life-skills that our participants bring to the table … The key factor in these successful discussions/workshops is that both we, as educators and researchers, and they, as parents/caregivers and students, learn from one another.”

The impact of the project has been felt on many levels. Teachers have observed that students are more confident, take more interest in class activities and are more receptive to working with their parents. Parents take more interest in their children’s learning tasks, have more communication with the school and share information with one another. Teachers also appreciate the enhanced communication with parents that the program provides, as well as the connection with university-based research and the stimulation of being involved with an innovative project. Some of the teachers who have been most centrally involved in the action research projects have been invited to write papers and give talks on these initiatives.

In addition to such qualitative benefits, improvements have also occurred in educators’ bottom line: standardized test scores. Between 2002 and 2005, the proportion of Thornwood students scoring Standard and above increased from 36 to 78 per cent in reading, from 55 to 80 per cent in writing and from 40 to 81 per cent in math. Of course, not all of the increase can be attributed to PIE, but such figures at the very least put to rest any claims that Thornwood’s efforts to be hospitable to multiple languages have hurt academic performance.

Through Schecter and Cummins’s book, as well as through the school’s website,17 which features both the PIE project and the student-produced dual-language books, Thornwood has acquired a modest international reputation, and receives visitors from diverse parts of the world. Schecter also travelled to Spain in February at the invitation of the Council of Madrid to speak to Spanish academics and policymakers about the project.

But there has been less interest in applying the project’s insights more broadly in 
Canada, in Ontario or even in Peel Region. Funding for the project has come from academic research sources (the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada), and there is no guarantee that PIE will continue when the current grants run out in early 2007. As an ongoing program rather than an action research project, its financial needs would be modest, but some funding is needed – to provide supplies (including the snacks); to pay the teachers for their participation, so that it is seen as part of their professional activities rather than an add-on; and to allow for needed consultation and professional development. Schecter estimates a total cost of about $10,000 a year per school.

Because PIE has grown organically out of the experience of Thornwood and the other schools, its design should not be regarded as a template to be implemented in other settings. However, its basic principles would appear to be broadly applicable: View diversity as a resource. Involve the parents, and value what they bring to the school. Encourage literacy in immigrant students’ home languages – it will ultimately enhance literacy in English as well. “Valuing of resources,” Schecter says, “is the key in the ignition.” In addition, it is important to have settlement workers involved in the project, and educational policy needs to be more closely integrated with immigration and settlement policy.

Multilingualism and multiculturalism as practised at Thornwood are the antithesis of communautarisme. Far from being ghettos, the various cultural communities at Thornwood, including the “host culture” (the English language along with school policies and expectations), are in constant communication with one another. What is new is that this communication does not take place entirely on the host culture’s terms.

Might this be the key to an approach to managing diversity that will allow Canada to escape the gloomy scenario that Amartya Sen warns may be in store?


1 Amartya Sen, “Chili and Liberty: The Uses and Abuses of Multiculturalism,” retrieved February 21, 2006, from

2 Allan Gregg, “Identity Crisis: Multiculturalism: A Twentieth-Century Dream Becomes a Twenty-first-Century Conundrum,” The Walrus, March 2006, pp. 38–47.

3 Ibid., p. 46.

4 Retrieved March 10, 2006, from

5 Emmanuel Brenner, ed., The Lost Territories of the Republic, tr. Bob Chodos and Susan Joanis (New York: American Jewish Committee, in press).

6 David Brooks, On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (and Always Have) in the Future Tense (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 48–49.

7 Ibid., p. 3.

8 Newsweek, March 27, 2006, p. 15.

9 Data retrieved March 29, 2006, from

10 Retrieved March 29, 2006, from

11 Figures based on 2001 census data retrieved March 29, 2006, from

12 See, for example, Jim Cummins, Bilingualism and Special Education: Issues in Assessment and Pedagogy (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1984).

13 Sandra R. Schecter and Jim Cummins, eds., Multilingual Education in Practice: Using Diversity as a Resource (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2003).

14 Patricia Chow and Jim Cummins, “Valuing Multilingual and Multicultural Approaches to Learning,” in Schecter and Cummins, eds., Multilingual Education in Practice, p. 41.

15 Ibid., p. 46.

16 The Settlement Workers in Schools program is a partnership of settlement agencies, boards of education and Citizenship and Immigration Canada. It makes available, in 18 languages, a series of guides to the Ontario education system: