What's Eating Little Portugal? Four Stars Café, located at the intersection of Dundas and Dufferin, is a popular haunt for Portuguese construction workers.  Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth.

What's Eating Little Portugal?

Forget Africentric schools: Toronto’s Portuguese community has the highest dropout rate in the city.

By Eric Andrew-Gee Jan. 7, 2013

In 1953, a ship called the Saturnia docked in the Halifax harbour. Its hold was full of ghosts. The vessel had transported Italian shock troops to Eritrea in the 1930s, and in the forties it served as a floating hospital for American GIs wounded during the Allied invasion of Italy. Now, as it bobbed in Nova Scotia’s cold Atlantic waters, the ship carried the victims of another dictatorship: people fleeing the poverty and repression of António de Salazar’s Portugal. They were the first Portuguese to come en masse to Canada.

Sixty years later, there are hundreds of thousands of Portuguese Canadians, including 170,000 in Toronto alone. Early Portuguese settlements in the city were centered around now-trendy Kensington Market, which for many decades was a low-rent landing strip for newly arrived immigrants. As more Portuguese came, the community drifted west and planted roots in a patch of red-brick semi-detached row houses collectively known as Little Portugal. The neighbourhood’s most notable building is a Cadbury chocolate factory, which belches cocoa fumes day and night.

From the very beginning, and with unusual persistence, the Portuguese community in downtown Toronto set about recreating its motherland on Canadian soil. “They never really left home,” proclaimed the headline of a 1973 Weekend magazine article. Although many Portuguese have since spread throughout the Greater Toronto Area, Little Portugal remains the community’s spiritual centre, and a strikingly realistic miniature of its namesake: squat, modestly sized houses, often with glazed tiles of the Virgin Mary beside the doors; little paved-over front yards; the alternately sweet and sea-salty smells of bakeries and fish markets; fado, the plaintive Portuguese folk music, booming out of storefront stereos and filling the streets.

But Toronto’s Portuguese brought something else with them: miserable academic performance. Although the high dropout rate among black students has grabbed headlines in recent years, prompting the creation of two Africentric schools in Toronto, it’s Portuguese who, according to a 2006 Toronto District School Board report, have the highest rate in the city: 42.5 percent. (Another report puts the number at 34 percent, but these estimates vary wildly over time, and the historical mean is closer to 40 percent.) That’s nearly 20 percent higher than the municipal average, and almost four times the rate for Chinese students. The Toronto Catholic District School Board doesn’t keep track of dropout rates by language group, but, according to a source in the TCDSB, their Portuguese students have the same problem.

While that 42.5 percent figure includes some Portuguese speakers from Brazil and Angola, the current generation of dropouts is, by and large, second- or third-generation Portuguese. According to the TDSB, just 17 percent of the children of Portuguese immigrants have a BA or higher level of education—the lowest number among second-generation Torontonians. In an Ontario-wide math test, 14 percent fewer Portuguese-language students reached the expected level of proficiency than the average Toronto student. Other studies indicate that only about one in twenty Portuguese Torontonians has a university degree, compared to the city average of one in four. Just 6 percent of Portuguese work in the professions, compared to 18 percent of all Toronto residents. And, defying the timeworn stereotype of upward mobility, the children of Portuguese immigrants do not make significantly more money than their parents.

The signs are unmistakable: Toronto’s Portuguese community is facing an education crisis. Why haven’t Portuguese charted the same ascendant course through Canadian society as, say, Italians or Indians? And what can the answer tell us about how to succeed in Canada?

Over the past decade or so, a loosely affiliated cadre of academics, community activists and educators have set about trying to diagnose the problem. According to one theory, advanced mostly by a handful of scholars, racial discrimination is to blame. David Pereira, a PhD student at the University of Toronto whose Master’s thesis was on education in the city’s Portuguese community, links the issue to Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “symbolic violence”: the kind of oppression that becomes so natural it starts to go unnoticed.

An obvious rebuttal is that the perpetrators of such violence must be operating at Rimbaud-like levels of obscurity; unlike the more overt racism that, for example, blacks or Arabs might face, anti-Portuguese bigotry is all but impossible to detect in Toronto. But Pereira and others bring up a variety of examples: curricula that focus on dead white men; educators who pressure ESL students to catch up with the rest of their class; teachers who assume that kids from poorly educated communities have little chance of success. Indeed, the sub-standard performance of Portuguese Canadian students has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s what Michael Gerson, a longtime speechwriter for George W. Bush, called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Eunice Machado faced it as a young girl in the 1980s. She turned out just fine—Machado is a lawyer with the Ontario government—but she still speaks of the school system with a tinge of bitterness. “I know that the schools at that time in particular were not helpful to our success,” she told me. “And I think that still exists in some schools.”

The weekend after I spoke to Machado, I attended a session of a Portuguese Canadian tutoring program called On Your Mark, held at St. Mary’s Catholic Secondary School. I sat in the back of a classroom filled with about twenty surly tweens, most of them not thrilled to be in class on a Sunday. A plain wooden cross hung over the blackboard, where four tutors were giving motivational speeches punctuated by self-conscious wisecracking.

One of the tutors, Shahiq “Shaq” Rizvi—a first-year biology student at York University—took his turn to speak. “Don’t waste your time with courses you don’t have to take,” he said. “You’re going to get bad marks. And the colleges don’t care. They’re looking for college-level courses.”

During a break, I sat with Felipe Madureira, a Grade 9 student with a mop of brown hair and a class clown’s sense of humour. Born in Portugal, he came to Toronto when he was seven. I asked him if teachers ever tried to set his expectations low. “My Grade 8 teacher said we’re all going to be carpenters like all the other Portuguese,” he answered. “Unless we study.”
His friend Bryan added, “Some student teacher came in in Grade 7 and said Portuguese kids don’t like to study.”

Fernando Nunes wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. A professor at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, he is the chief apostle of systemic racism as an explanation for Portuguese Canadian failure in the school system. His many papers are erudite, well researched and deeply felt.

When I asked Nunes if Portuguese Canadian parents value education less than others, his soft choir-boy voice grew steely. “The stereotype that is out there is that Portuguese parents don’t care about their kids’ education,” he said. “And I think that’s very harsh, and very, very wrong.”

Nunes thinks that governments at all levels should be working overtime to help the Portuguese Canadian community succeed. In one 2004 paper, he laments that Ottawa doesn’t consider Portuguese youth eligible for affirmative action in education or the job market. But above all, he thinks Canadian school curricula are ethno-centric and make newcomers feel alienated and confused. When we spoke, he mentioned that, on a test for gifted students, his son was asked how far Canada is from England.

Still, systemic discrimination only goes so far in explaining the problem. You might remark to Nunes, as I did, that other non-Anglo-Saxon kids have no more cultural attachment to Britain than their Portuguese peers. If curricula were alienating newcomers, you would expect to see a range of immigrant groups taking a similar hit—but that’s not the case.

Marcie Ponte laughed when I asked her about Nunes’ theory. A community worker with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and thick silver rings on her fingers, Ponte oversees On Your Mark, the tutoring program where I encountered Felipe. She came to Canada from Portugal as a girl. “Our kids get their cultural education through their families,” she told me in her paper-strewn office on the northern edge of Little Portugal. “I’m happy they have events that celebrate cultures, and Portuguese is one of those—that’s great. But I don’t think it’s about the curriculum.”

Ponte’s diagnosis? “If it’s everywhere, including back home, it’s cultural,” she said. She is right about “back home”: Portugal is the only European country, other than Ireland, where immigrant students perform better than their native counterparts on a standard international math and science test. According to the Wall Street Journal, the high-school dropout rate in Portugal is 37.1 percent—better only than Turkey and Mexico in the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. What if poor academic achievement comes from some coil of Portuguese culture?

In 1891, an anonymous correspondent for Blackwood’s Edinburgh magazine spent several months in rural Portugal and penned a travelogue about his experience. He noted that an unusually progressive education law had been passed in 1878. The law made school attendance mandatory for children between the ages of six and twelve, and prescribed a wide array of subjects of instruction, from reading to math to “morality and Christianity.” (For girls, there was also needlework.)

But the Blackwood’s correspondent also found that hardly anyone went to school regularly, and he guessed that perhaps 10 percent of the population was literate. He pinpointed two reasons. First, the national government was tired and corrupt, a shell of the visionary kingdom that sent Vasco de Gama around the world. It often didn’t enforce mandatory school attendance. It could scarcely pay its teachers. The correspondent observed, “One of the favorite subjects of satire in the comic papers is the Prime Minister, or other high Government official, grown fat and rich, while the unfortunate schoolmaster, reduced to a skeleton by want, approaches and begs for payment of his hard-earned salary.”

Second, kids were sent to work from a young age, and the mostly rural population was too poor to afford the loss of little labourers to the classroom. By 1912, 65.9 percent of migrants from the Portuguese mainland were illiterate, according to David Higgs’ excellent study The Portuguese in Canada.

Then came Salazar. From the moment he took power in 1932, the dictator’s attitude toward education ranged from indifference to outright hostility. He issued blithe pronouncements like “the illiteracy in Portugal is not recent and that didn’t prevent our literature to be one of the richest in the last centuries.” More significantly, he reduced mandatory primary education to a mere three years. Under Salazar, high school was only offered by expensive private schools, or for free by the Catholic Church, as Amelia Libertucci points out in her 2011 paper “Schooling in Little Portugal: The Portuguese Experience.”

Unlike many of his fascist contemporaries, Salazar was not a mad futurist with grand plans for refashioning society. He idealized the ancient, the agrarian, the traditional. This meant urging peasants to be satisfied with their station—to till the fields and remain simple and uneducated. He was terribly successful. Today, only 30 percent of people in Portugal between twenty-five and sixty-four—a cohort that came of age in the time between Salazarian fascism and the chaotic early years of democracy—have a high-school diploma. In Germany, it’s 85 percent; in the US, 89 percent. “We’ve been beaten up since the Salazar years to think we’re not worth the education, not worth the energy,” Ponte told me. “So why bother—why not just go work in a factory?”

Decades of grinding poverty and right-wing fairy tales conspired to render the first wave of Portuguese immigrants to Canada shockingly undereducated. By the early 1960s, Higgs writes, the average length of time Portuguese men in Toronto had spent in school was 3.7 years. For women, it was 2.8 years. Even starker: in a 2002 survey, just 1.6 percent of Portuguese students in Toronto said that their mothers had a post-secondary degree. Zero percent said their fathers did.

Not only were first-generation Portuguese immigrants uneducated—they arrived with a marrow-deep belief that learning was secondary to work. Roger de Silveira, who was born in the Azorean island of Pico and now runs a café with his wife in Little Portugal, summed up the attitude this way: “Education is good, but we’re very poor, and we need to eat.” Instead of investing in the future benefits of education, this generation—raised in extreme hardship in Portugal—set its sights on material comfort.

Portuguese parents often passed these values on to their children. In the early 1990s, Portuguese Canadian high-school students worked more hours per week in part-time jobs than any other group, and spent some of the fewest hours per week on homework. This translated into young people entering the workforce with little training. As a 2000 study found, “Portuguese-Canadian men and women were the only group of European origin, to be found working disproportionately in unskilled, or poorly-skilled occupations, amongst approximately 20 visible-minority recent immigrant minorities.”

Jennifer Silva is an occupational therapist who tutors Portuguese Canadian kids in her spare time. She has an MSc from the University of Toronto. Her dad was a bus driver for the city, and he tried to instill in her his own skepticism of education. “I asked my dad if he found his job rewarding,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, it’s rewarding when I get my paycheck every two weeks.’”
Sometimes the lesson was even more overt. “My dad, when I was getting my Master’s, started saying, ‘When are you going to graduate and get a real job?’” she told me.

Many Portuguese Canadians say that the problem goes even deeper than attitudes toward schooling. For his Master’s thesis, David Pereira interviewed about a dozen young Portuguese men in Toronto and asked them what they thought it meant to be a man. “When they’re asked to reflect on how their community perceives masculinity, it’s still in these old-world ways,” Pereira said. “Masculinity is still very much seen in terms of work, and working with one’s hands.”

I ran into this perception myself. One cloudless day in late April, I walked into a bar at Dundas and Dufferin, the epicentre of Little Portugal. I started speaking to a carpenter, on his day off, who was getting increasingly drunk. He told me a bit about his life, fairly amiably—“I’ve been milking cows since I was five”—but then became suspicious and hostile. He asked me why I didn’t work with my hands like him, like a man, instead of scribbling in my notebook—and here he hunched his shoulders and squinted his eyes in imitation of an old woman.

Anecdotally, Portuguese Canadian boys do seem to be dropping out at a higher rate than girls. (Although there isn’t any good data on this, everyone in the community whom I spoke with attested to the problem.) Girls, however, haven’t escaped the cultural baggage of the Salazar era either. While she was in graduate school, Jennifer Silva went to a reunion at the family cottage. As she laid out the table for dinner, one of her cousins blurted, “See, you don’t need a degree to set the table.”

But the most harmful cultural hang-up of the Portuguese in Toronto has nothing to do with gender. According to many activists, parents often have little interest in becoming involved in their children’s education. Last year, when the TDSB’s task force on Portuguese education tried to hold a meeting for parents, just six people showed up.

Eunice Machado, who was on the task force, says that parents don’t engage with educators because of an ingrained tendency to defer to authority. “There’s a huge sort of humility to the community,” Machado told me. “Going back in history, if you weren’t one of the super-educated ones, you didn’t question those in authority. And a teacher had far more authority than you did, knew a lot more than you did. They’d been to university, which was a far-off and distant thing. So you didn’t question them.”

Some think the problem is too rooted to fix. Marcie Ponte, who was also on the task force, gave a full-body shrug when I raised the issue. “When we started this task force, we started with, ‘We have to figure out a way to involve parents,’” she said. “And the reality is, our parents don’t want to be involved. So stop beating a dead horse.”

Under Salazar, Portuguese parents were trained to think that work equaled survival and that more education meant less bread on the table. Although low-income immigrants from other corners of the world might have once believed the same thing, they later realized that such a strict equation doesn’t apply here. In Canada, education is a good investment, and advancement is attainable. Not easy, but, unlike in Salazar’s Portugal, possible. To succeed in Canada, you have to believe in the system. You also have to want the kind of success—generations getting progressively richer and better educated—that Canada offers.

On a Saturday in April, I visited Pavao, a butcher in Little Portugal. The metallic smell of fresh meat hung in the air. It was busy, so when I asked one of the store’s owners if she was free to talk, and she told me no, I made for the exit. As I reached the door, a young man with a tanned, babyish face and a bemused smile stopped me.

“What do you need, man?” he asked. His name was Daniel. He was wearing a white butcher’s overcoat and a Pavao employee hat, with a Canadian flag on one side and a Portuguese flag on the other.

“I’m looking to talk about education in Toronto’s Portuguese community,” I said.

Smirking, and without missing a beat, he said, “There isn’t any!”

I laughed. So, I asked, does he think it’s a problem for Portuguese students to drop out of high school, as many do? He shook his head. “As long as you’re making money,” he said. “Money is money. A lot of construction workers make more money than teachers.”

His coworker, a young woman with pale skin and dark eyes, leaned over from the cash register and chimed in. “People who go to university are losing money.”

Okay, I said, but a lot of Portuguese students are dropping out of high school. 42.5 percent of them, according to one estimate.
Daniel stopped short. His eyes bugged out. “Are you serious?”

I nodded.

“That’s bad!” he said, shaking his head.

It’s the highest rate of any ethnic group in the city, I said.

Daniel looked bowled over. Finally he composed himself, tilted his head to one side and said, “Even more than black people?”

Yes, I told him, a little.

But as we continued to talk, he and his coworker maintained that dropping out wasn’t such a big deal, as long as the dropouts were making money. And that’s the thing: the dropouts are making money. Many of them are carpenters and construction workers and plumbers. Have you ever gotten your pipes fixed, or your deck renovated? It’s expensive. The average household income of a Portuguese resident of Mississauga, a Toronto suburb, is $80,210, slightly higher than the city average. In Little Portugal, it’s just under $60,000—not lavish, but usually enough to live comfortably, to own a car, to take yearly trips back to Europe.

Even in poorer Little Portugal, 66.4 percent of Portuguese own their homes. That’s also higher than the city average. (For Portuguese in Mississauga, it’s a staggering 88.5 percent.) Whatever their incomes, the majority of Portuguese in Toronto are effectively living in big piggy banks, ready to cash in if times get tough. When most of them bought their houses, in the sixties and seventies, they cost a pittance. Now, properties in gentrifying Little Portugal routinely sell in the high six figures.

All of this gives pause. What if Toronto’s Portuguese don’t want to be, and don’t need to be, good at school? Financially, they’re doing fine.

Enir Bassanni, a community-relations officer with the Catholic school board, is from Brazil and has lived in Canada for thirty-five years. His wife is Portuguese. “We have to look at what’s success,” he acknowledged. “If you look at strictly academics, they are a failure. But if you look at other areas, they are okay. They have houses, they have cars, they have possessions and they work hard.”

Still, Bassanni thinks that the job market will soon force Portuguese Canadians to care about education. He notes the increasing demand for formal schooling in the workplace. “If you can’t read or write, what are you going to do with your BlackBerry?” he said. “You become an idiot. You’ll be living in a ghetto, and it’ll be more and more constricted by verbal communication. For the future, the community needs to wake up and make that change.”

I asked when the change would come.

“I think they will want to change when the water comes to their neck,” he said, “and they have to swim.”

In the meantime, there are a handful of Portuguese Canadian activists trying to teach the community to tread water. Maria Rodrigues, the TDSB trustee for Little Portugal and environs, floated the idea of a Portuguese-only school in the mould of the Africentric ones that have resulted in higher test scores for black students. The TDSB task force concluded that it was a bad idea. The people on the task force whom I spoke with said it would only aggravate the ossification that’s largely responsible for the community’s education problem in the first place. “We’re so insular as a community as it is,” Ponte told me. “So if you separate us out more, it’ll just kill us.”

Instead, the task force recommended a series of pleasant-sounding, small-bore solutions in its report, delivered in March, such as an annual conference of Portuguese-speaking students, cultural training for teachers and a liaison between the community and the schools.

On Your Mark, the tutoring program, is more ambitious. The tutors there told me that most of their charges end up graduating, although they don’t keep detailed statistics. The staff are passionate and tireless, running through the halls like a battalion under General Patton. They have been so effective with Portuguese students, in fact, that the TDSB asked them to take on the similarly troubled Hispanic community.

But it’s hard to escape the feeling that tutoring is life support, not a cure. The issues that make Portuguese Canadian kids lag in school— systemic discrimination, unengaged parents, pressure to enter the work force—aren’t going to be fixed by a dedicated few people dragging teenagers through high school and up to the podium at convocation.

Bassani thinks he has a plan that gets at the root of the problem. In his years at the Catholic school board, he noticed that Portuguese Canadian students were having a hard time reading. He realized that “there is no environment conducive to literacy in the house.” His solution: make parents read with their kids. Today, at eighty elementary Catholic schools across the city, students have to take books home and read with their parents, then write a short report and have their parents sign a contract vouching that they took part.

There are forty-two books in the Family Literacy Collection—one for each phonetic sound in the Jolly Phonics system, a method for teaching English using sounds rather than the alphabet. “Ninety-nine percent of the parents and students are doing it,” Bassanni said. Still, he knows that Jolly Phonics is not a silver bullet for a problem that’s decades, if not centuries, old. Of everyone I spoke to, Bassanni was perhaps the most coldly realistic. When I asked what it was going to take to make Portuguese Canadians succeed academically, he struck a biblical tone: “Generations. Time.”

One afternoon, I walked into A Lota (“the auction”) Seafoods just as things were winding down. The pungent smell of cod filled my nostrils. A woman mopped the floor. At the cash stood a short man with a bristly beard whose nametag read “Joe.” I walked up to him and said that I was hoping to talk about education in the Portuguese community. “There’s none,” he said with a snort. I’d heard the joke before.

Still, he told me to come behind the checkout desk to talk. As he rang up the remaining customers, he told me his story. His last name is Gomes. In the seventies, when he was a boy, he and his parents came over from Viseu, a small city in northern Portugal. When he was fifteen, he dropped out of high school and got a job. He just didn’t like school that much, and he wanted to make some money. “I’m your typical pork chop,” he quipped.

Now, all these years later, he’s still an assistant manager at a fish shop. “Yeah, that was a great step, quitting school,” he said bitterly.

“So you regret dropping out?” I asked.

“Anyone with a normal mind would regret it.”

His boss—a stocky man with a thick mustache and a mischievous glint in his eye—noticed that we were talking about education. “Joe’s the perfect person to talk to,” he said. “What do you have, Joe? College, university?”

“Yeah,” Gomes replied, grinning. “I got an MBA in Portuguese seafood stores.”

Our conversation turned to Gomes’ son, who had struggled through high school. I asked Gomes if he encouraged the boy to continue his studies.

“Oh God, I wanted him to get a degree in something,” he said. “Now? He works at Tim Hortons. Yee haw.”

I asked if he had helped his son with homework. He acknowledged that the kid was often on his own with tricky assignments. “I’d try and help as much as I could,” Gomes said. “But I didn’t have high school, so how am I supposed to help with certain things?”

Back in the seventies, he said, the Portuguese in Canada were poor, and focused on financial stability above all else. There was a logic to dropping out—mortgages to be paid, food to be put on the table. “Now, I don’t really understand why,” Gomes said. “Things aren’t as bad as they used to be.” Still, he said, with a dark chuckle, “it’s the same attitude: work first, knowledge later.”