When the historic Eastern Commerce Collegiate Institute closed its doors with just 62 students in June 2015, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) recommended that the building at 16 Phin Ave. become the new home of Ontario’s first indigenous kindergarten-Grade 12 public school. It was expected to open with 45 vanguard Grade 9s in the fall of 2016, and eventually add grades and students until it approached the building’s capacity of 903.
But instead, the school near Jones and Danforth avenues continues to rent space to the Creative Pre-School, and it’s home to the Subway Academy One, an alternative high school. It also houses the TDSB museum and archives. Instead of an indigenous K-12 school, it seems likely to become a French language high school, if some politicians and parents get their way.
“The parents in east-end Toronto have been strong and effective advocates for a French-language high school in the east end for a long time, but their voices have become louder because there is now a site that looks to meet their purposes,” said Jennifer Story, the TDSB trustee for Ward 15 /Toronto-Danforth.
In July, the TDSB submitted a business plan to the provincial government for the proposed Urban Indigenous Education Centre of Excellence. A number of locations were suggested, including an alternate site in the West Don Lands at Cherry and Mill streets. The area has recently seen an influx of low-rise condominiums, and has more space to spare.
Proposed alternate locations for the indigenous school might also have something to do with the current physical state of Eastern Commerce. The school is 91 years old and is in major need of renovations — estimated at $40 million. Metal mesh caging covers the ground-floor windows, exposed wiring drapes the brick walls, and paint is peeling around many of the window frames.
“It resembles a residential school setting. People don’t want that. They don’t want any reminder of that,” said Tasunke Sugar, who has the title of family nurturing instructor at the Toronto Council Fire Native Cultural Centre in Cabbagetown.
Sugar, 21, attended the existing First Nations School on Dundas Street East up until Grade 8, but when it came time to transition into the public high school system, he found it “scary and very intimidating” to be around so many people in a bustling environment. He believes there is a vital need for a public high school where indigenous students can learn in a culturally appropriate environment.
If Eastern Commerce “was to be an indigenous ‘Centre of Excellence,’ the commitment (by TDSB) would be to retrofit the space to indigenize the space to make it appropriate for indigenous teaching, learning and support for an urban indigenous community,” said Story. The school would include a drum area and enough outdoor space for nature study.
The need is certainly there, even if Eastern Commerce isn’t the eventual destination, according to Sugar’s colleague, Joan McDougall, who is manager of the education department at Toronto Council Fire. McDougall meets many aboriginal people in her literacy program who are still interested in getting their secondary credits.
“I think it would be a natural fit for them if they knew there was a First Nations secondary school where they could be enrolled,” she said. “I think if there was a high school there (downtown), people would quickly know about it.”
By law, if the TDSB declared Eastern Commerce surplus, “the board would be required to offer the building to other school boards, with a priority to the French school board,” said Story. She acknowledged that the East York francophone community “has been lobbying for 10 years for a site in the east end” in the hope of establishing a French secondary school.
With three French elementary schools in the East York area and only one secondary school downtown east of Yonge Street, the next nearest francophone high school is in Pickering, Ecole Ronald-Marion, opened in 2013.
“There is a huge geographical gap and many of the students have to travel long distances or they leave our system to go to the English board, which is unfortunate,” said Jean-François L’Heureux, the chair of the Conseil Viamonde, which manages French-language public schools across a large swath of southern Ontario.
In a July 22 open letter signed by New Democrat MPP for Toronto-Danforth Peter Tabuns, as well as both city councillors for the Toronto-Danforth area Mary Fragedakis and Paula Fletcher, the political trio stated that “we strongly urge the TDSB to consider transferring the building to the Conseil Scolaire Viamonde to be used as a francophone secondary school.”
Conseil Scolaire Viamonde has been opening new schools every year inside former Toronto public schools. It purchased the former West Toronto Collegiate and now operates École Secondaire Toronto Ouest.
“The cost of the renovation was just as much as buying the 40-year-old building,” said L’Heureux.
Tabuns has been supporting francophone initiatives for the last three years, but he says he knows that “the TDSB will respect the wishes of the indigenous community.” In his view, the move to the West Don Lands is a decision the indigenous community has to make — and no one else.
The TDSB’s position is similar to Tabuns’. With the help of the indigenous community, the TDSB is working patiently to make sure every part of the process is done correctly and “all the voices around this challenging and big decision are heard,” Story said.