Our neighbourhood in downtown Toronto was generally poor with a certain proportion of post-war immigrants and migrants from other parts of Canada.

Whenever my father had an assistant to help with tailoring, it was invariably an immigrant.  He never found a Canadian born tailor who was interested in working with him or with whom he was satisfied.  Ukrainians, Jewish immigrants, Poles, Italians and a man from the West Indies all worked with him for a time until they found more lucrative opportunities elsewhere.

There were Estonians and Finns in the neighbourhood with beautiful blonde daughters as well as Chinese who had either immigrated many years before or were the offspring of such immigrants.  Japanese Canadians who had been resettled from Western Canada or came to Toronto after their evacuation from the B.C. coast owned the drug store across the street and down a few houses from us.  Italian immigrants owned the grocery store while a Jewish family owned a used objects store just down the street on the next block.   When I was older and had moved on to the higher grades, I discovered a new Jewish family had moved into a variety store two blocks south of us but moved out after about 5 or 6 years and in high school I made close friends with a Jewish teen whose family owned and lived in a tenement just above Wellesley on the east side of Yonge.  

There were a significant number of German or Austrian families but their stay in the neighbourhood was generally the shortest.

Despite this seeming variety, the vast majority were English, Irish and Scottish with a few French Canadians from Northern Ontario.  The overwhelming impression many of these families left on me was of people who had lived in poverty for more than one generation.  A number of our school chums had parents who were alcoholics, whose mothers often appeared with broken arms or bruises and whose fathers had slicked back hair in ducktails while wearing white t-shirts over thin tattooed arms.  One friend had a mother and five brothers and sisters, each of whom had a different father.

I finally met an immigrant from England whose family was completely different from this pattern.  They drank tea with milk, which blew my socks off as my parents always had tea with lemon and a sugar cube.  My new friend, Tom, showed me how to eat raw onions with bread and salt and his family took me fishing – unheard of.   His father was a baker and his parents spoke with a thick cockney accent.   But they were always ready for a laugh.

As I moved up the grades from elementary to high school, I noticed that only the immigrant children from the neighbourhood went with me.  The poorer native born children dropped out or were channeled to Tech or Vocational Schools and I rarely saw them again.  Some I heard were arrested for offences ranging from armed robbery to assault with a deadly weapon.  One joined the army.  A few of the girls ended up married with children by the time they were 16 and one was arrested as a prostitute.

But here’s the rub.  These poorer English, Irish, Scottish and French children were replaced as my classmates by teens whose families lived in Rosedale.  We ended up with a class full of immigrants, as well as Chinese and Japanese Canadians from Cabbagetown complemented by a large group from Rosedale and just one or two non-immigrants from my old neighbourhood.

What did it mean.  Why did this come about?  Looking back on it, I realize that the immigrant children always gave the impression that they and their families saw themselves living in this neighbourhood only temporarily.  Their houses were full of music lessons, students doing their homework, neatness, ambition and parents who seemed aware of and confident in themselves.  My other friends lived in poorer quarters with the signs of unemployment, alcoholism and a general lack of care all around them.  They owned their poverty and seemed proud of it.   They were not interested in school or education but rather tended to laugh at those of us who tried to do well.  I was called a “suck” and a “brown” by kids who over the years completely disappeared from school.

Occasionally one of them would also turn towards books and school.  The Rosedale crowd seemed to assume that that was their destiny from the day I met them and only rarely swerved from the path.  

So what differentiated us and set us on different roads?  The belief in education and learning seems to have made all the difference although I am not sure we are all happier as a result.  Drug addiction, sex, alcohol, divorce and the sense of lost purpose and meaning have all afflicted us.  It just happened a little later in life and most of us have material possessions we poorer children probably did not dream of.

In the end of it, if you come from an environment where you learn that violence, dissolution and ignorance are values, you will find it hard to break free.  If you are in this environment but find these things abhorrent you will do all in your power to get out.  And if you are to the manor born, chances are you will try to stay there.