The discussion is one often heard whenever and wherever the parents of elementary school-aged children gather: Where are you sending them to school?
Increasingly in Canada’s big cities, and especially among the affluent, that question also includes an unspoken undercurrent: How are you going to avoid the “problems” posed by sending them to public schools?
These parents are concerned, among other things, that teachers in big cities are overwhelmed by the demands of special needs students, immigrant children and others with poor language skills. The concern is not usually racist but is an honest belief that classrooms populated with students struggling with English cannot offer optimal learning conditions for their children.
For some, the solution has come in the form of French-immersion classes, or gifted programs, which are often dominated by middle- and upper-class children. Other families have elected to simply pick up and move.
York Region Superintendent Vicki Bismilla, who is in charge of equity issues for the board, has watched the ethnic transformations of whole schools, such as Armadale and Coppard Glen, in Markham.
More than 80 per cent of the student populations at the schools, built in what used to be mostly white neighbourhoods, now speak English as a second language.
Asked if that transformation is the result of immigration or white flight, Bismilla is unequivocal: “White flight, big time.”
White flight from visible minority neighbourhoods and their schools is a complicated phenomenon, driven by factors that include housing prices, aging families and rising incomes. It is not necessarily a new phenomenon, either, as immigrants have always tended to settle in identifiable neighbourhoods.
It is also a highly sensitive topic, as evinced by a recent Statistics Canada study that examined the formation of visible minority neighbourhoods in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The study never mentions white flight, but instead uses the term “rapid replacement” to describe the combination of white residents moving out and visible minorities moving in.
Tony Carrigan is the ESL co-ordinator in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond, B.C., where six out of 10 residents now speak English as a second language. Carrigan has seen the Canadian-born population in the city’s schools drop steadily during the past six years (only 46 per cent of students reported speaking English at home in September, 2003), but he’s unable to pinpoint the cause of that transformation.
“Our non-ESL population has dropped, but is that because of white flight? Maybe. It could also be because of economic opportunity; people can get a lot of money for their homes now. It could also be demographic: Their children have grown up and moved out.”
Statistics Canada recently studied the way in which Canada’s visible minority neighbourhoods were formed. Government researchers Feng Hou and Garnett Picot found a rapid rise in the number of visible-minority neighbourhoods—ones with more than 30 per cent of the population drawn from the same visible-minority group—in Canada’s three largest cities.
Between 1981 and 2001, the number of so-called ethnic enclaves increased to 254 from 6, according to the recently released StatsCan report, Visible Minority Neighbourhoods in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The enclaves were most often dominated by Chinese residents or South Asians. Toronto and Vancouver each had more than 100 visible minority neighbourhoods; Montreal had only eight.
In their study, researchers Feng and Hou also set out to discover how the neighbourhoods were formed. They examined the newest enclaves to determine how many visible minorities moved in and how many non-visible minorities, or whites, moved out.
They then established the “median rate” of decrease in the non-visible minority populations in neighbourhoods losing white residents. When neighbourhoods lost white residents at a rate greater than the median, the phenomenon was referred to by the researchers as “rapid replacement.”
Feng and Hou found that in Toronto, 23 out of 26 newly formed South Asian neighbourhoods and 24 out of 32 newly formed Chinese neighbourhoods and five out of six black neighbourhoods were created through rapid replacement. (In Toronto, a neighbourhood was classified as one subject to rapid replacement when more than 24 per cent of the white population moved out between 1981 and 2001.)
In Vancouver, 48 out of 55 newly formed Chinese neighbourhoods and five out of 12 South Asian neighbourhoods were the product of rapid replacement. In Montreal, the three black and three South Asian neighbourhoods were also the result of rapid replacement.
The researchers concluded: “Most of the visible minority neighbourhoods were formed through an increase in the visible-minority group in a neighbourhood with a corresponding decline in the non-visible minority population.”
In other words, the formation of most of the country’s recent visible minority neighbourhoods involved some combination of white flight and immigration.
Feng and Hou noted that rapid replacement tended to occur only at the “initial stage” of a neighbourhood’s transition and was unlikely to lead to a complete turnover.
Most neighbourhoods eventually find an equilibrium of sorts. “This suggests,” they wrote, “that co-residence of members from different groups is an essential element of communities, even in visible minority neighbourhoods.”
So, what has the phenomenon meant for classrooms?
Mass immigration has obviously increased the pressure on school boards in Vancouver, Toronto and their suburbs.
Boards have had to respond to skyrocketing demand for English-as-a-second-language classes while managing other educational issues—everything from dealing with the cases of Chinese students who refuse ESL classes (some believe they needlessly slow their academic progress) to talking to those Pakistani Muslim parents who do not want their children to participate in music classes (some Muslims consider certain types of music a violation of their religious lifestyles).
In some of Vancouver’s concentrated ethnic enclaves, the combined effects of immigration and white flight have left some schools with so many Mandarin-speaking students that students are having a hard time learning English from their classmates.
In York Region, Vicki Bismilla says the board has had to launch a series of school-based workshops aimed at parents in areas with few immigrants, highlighting the need to make schools more inclusive.
Bismilla says she has talked to parents in the mostly white neighbourhoods of Stouffville, for instance, who do not mask their reasons for moving.
“In Stouffville,” Bismilla says, “when we even try to talk about race relations, we’ve had people openly say to us: ‘We ran away from Markham because of multiculturalism. Don’t come here and talk to us about multiculturalism.’
“Already we have people in burkas that are showing up in some of these schools and they are facing some really weird reactions,” she says.
Markham, a city of 207,000, has been transformed over the past two decades.
The city’s residents are now 56 per cent visible minority, mostly Chinese and South Asian. According to census data, the visible-minority population grew to 115,000 in 2001 from 79,000 in 1996, accounting for almost all of Markham’s growth during that time.
The city’s overall white population declined slightly during that same period.
The most important impact of white flight, however, has been the transformation of schools in affected neighbourhoods into front-line settlement agencies. Mat Hassen, assistant superintendent of the Burnaby School District, where about half of all homes report speaking a language other than English, says governments have yet to recognize the challenges faced by these schools.
“We end up feeding people,” he says.
“We end up trying to link up social services; we end up dealing with families who have been kicked out of a place because they haven’t paid the rent for three months; we deal with family turmoil; we deal with the teenage sister who has now gone hooking; we deal with the drug consequences.”We can’t help the kid have a good, productive educational experience unless we help some of the things that surround the kid. It’s not our work to get involved with the family, but on the other hand, how do you not deal with the family issues if they’re affecting the kid’s performance in school?”
Worried about how these issues will affect their own children’s learning environment, many white parents, it seems, turn to alternative programs to quell their anxieties.
In one of the few studies to assess the student composition of French immersion and gifted programs, the former Toronto Board of Education found poor and non-white students were under-represented in both. The study, published in 1999, found that students with a “high” socio-economic background were three to four times more likely to enrol in such programs.
The study also breaks down enrolment in French immersion and gifted programs by ethnicity, finding those most likely to be enrolled in French immersion were students who identified themselves as Jewish (21 per cent), English-speaking white students (19 per cent), Polish (14 per cent), Canadian-born blacks (12 per cent) and Italian (10 per cent).
According to the report, other visible minority students—Chinese (4 per cent), Vietnamese (5 per cent) Tamil 4 (per cent), Latin Americans (6 per cent) and Caribbean born-blacks (3 per cent)—were much less likely to be enrolled in French immersion.