Heritage schools

Celebrating our ethnic identity

When you live in the GTA, you can experience cultures from around the world simply by walking down the street. But just because you’ve had fun at Chinese New Year or hung out in Little India doesn’t mean you truly understand a culture’s heritage: its complex history, the stories behind its holidays or the purpose of its traditional costumes.

That’s why many Toronto parents send their children to heritage classes. Perhaps they’re second or third generation and have lost some cultural knowledge, or they’re offspring of a mixed-heritage marriage so they don’t have a strong connection but want their kids to be taught about their own cultural background. Or maybe they have no personal connection other than an interest in learning about another culture.

From African heritage to Muslim teachings, there’s an array of programs for children across the city that offer instruction in language (if appropriate), and expose students to history, stories, dancing, food and other aspects of a culture. “It puts the parts together,” says Themis Aravossitas, director of education for the Greek Community of Toronto (greekcommunity.org). “It helps them figure out who they are.”

Many students begin their cultural education through the Toronto District School Board’s International Languages Program (tdsb.on.ca), which teaches 100 different languages as after-school and Saturday programs all over the city. These classes include some heritage, too. “I don’t think you can teach a language without referring to culture,” says Judy Whitfield, central coordinating principal of continuing education for the TDSB.

The board partners with groups that offer culture-only instruction on Saturdays, starting right after the language classes end (sometimes using the same teachers). Programs teaching Arabic, Taiwanese, Greek and Chinese culture charge their own fees (often a few hundred dollars a year, in addition to the $20 the city charges for language class).

However, many programs run for several hours on a Saturday or Sunday, and can conflict with swimming lessons, hockey games and family gatherings. As well, since there are so many different cultures in the GTA, and heritage-only classes aren’t run by one central organization, the choices vary widely. Some offer classes all over town at great prices, while others’ offerings might be less ideal.

To find more offerings, look for cultural groups, as many offer classes for both kids and adults. For instance, religious schools that teach Islamic or Jewish traditions abound in the GTA. Maxine Hermolin, executive director at the Morris Winchevsky Centre (winchevskycentre.org), says the key is making sure the school matches your family’s particular beliefs. “Our centre wouldn’t speak to you at all if you were deeply religious. We don’t have prayers.”

When kids get immersed in their ethnic or religious past, they are able to better understand — and enjoy — the cultural holidays they celebrate with family. That kind of cultural understanding helps young children find a closer connection with older relatives. “We create a link between the two cultures,” says Aravossitas. This kind of education is particularly helpful when families go for a visit to their country of origin.

The goal is to turn heritage into a point of pride, to encourage kids to celebrate their background rather than hiding it, and incorporate that background into their identity as Canadians. A heritage education can help children make the connection between life in Canada and their own cultural past.

FILED UNDER: