St. Christopher House, 1912-2012: a century of social services in Toronto

Free Interpreter Services

In 1971, St. Christopher House started the Free Interpreter Service, which met the needs of Portuguese immigrants by filling out paper-work, translating, and helping with employment and Unemployment Insurance issues. By 1974, the Free Interpreter Service was handling 700 to 900 requests for assistance a month.

The Portuguese West of Bathurst Project

The workers serving as interpreters for Portuguese-speaking immigrants had become aware that this kind of direct service provided only short-term solutions and did little to tackle the basic problems of isolation derived, among other things, from cultural roles, language barriers, and lack of information about community resources. Two counsellors in particular, Isabel de Almeida and Sidney Pratt, began to plan new ways to meet the needs of Portuguese immigrants that would focus on community development rather than just offering direct services. These would lead to the creation of The Portuguese West of Bathurst Project in 1974 (later called Services to Adults). This project was influenced by the rise of community development work in the period, particularly in the United States. It reflected an ideological and service shift at St. Christopher House, one which now focused on developing clients’ autonomy and self-determination, and promoting social advocacy around immigrants’ most pressing needs. One of the first issues that the Portuguese West of Bathurst Project dealt with was mediating between the staff at St. Veronica’s, the local Separate elementary school, whose student population was 90% Portuguese, and Portuguese immigrant families. The Portuguese West of Bathurst Project was invited by the Principal to discuss the problems the school was having in understanding the culture of Portuguese families. St. Christopher House workers did home visits to hundreds of families; met with the teachers to discuss parents’ concerns; sent a photographer to the school to photograph the children at play and at work; and made videos in order to inform parents of what went on in the Canadian school system in an effort to bridge the cultural gap between the school and Portuguese families.

The Literacy Work Group and the new ESL curriculum

By the end of the three-year pilot project, the staff recognized that low-income illiterate adults shared many of the same problems as new immigrants. The Literacy Working Group developed in response to this realization, and was composed by workers from a number of voluntary agencies and educational organizations. The group developed new learning materials, teacher training, and new approaches to adult education. Curriculum materials were designed to help participants develop into critical and independent thinkers, learning how to exercise control over their own lives.

In conjunction with the West-End Y.M.C.A. and St. Stephen’s Community House, The Portuguese West of Bathurst Project also developed a new English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum based on Paulo Freire's method. Freire had developed literacy programs in the 1960s for the poor in Brazil and became a influential reference in literacy movements worldwide. Moving beyond simply teaching people how to read, Freire advocated instead a curriculum that promoted justice, equality and consciousness-raising of the working-classes. Thus, the new ESL curriculum in Toronto community agencies now focused on the everyday realities of immigrants’ lives as well as social justice issues, such as labour rights and gender equality.

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