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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 9: Starting life poor

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2003

Troy Fraser looks like a young, black, hip answer to the cardigan-clad Mr. Rogers, sitting in a rocking chair, a gaggle of small children scattered on the rug at his feet listening to the book he reads on the miracle of life in a seed.

This is science class in his Grade 1 classroom, cluttered with pint-sized metal desks and children's clumsy artwork taped to the walls, where struggling immigrants from the shabby high-rises that surround the school send their children.

Mr. Fraser was one of these children two decades ago, born in a nearby hospital and raised in the Jane-Finch corridor, a north Toronto neighbourhood that has become more notorious for gangs, drugs, and guns than for the abundance of hard-scrabble immigrants and second-generation single mothers assigned to life on Canada's bottom rung.

The social-housing project where he lived as a child with his single mother and older siblings is in plain view from the front door of the school where he works. Twenty years ago, when he was in Grade 1, he sat at a desk in a classroom like this one, just blocks away.

As a university graduate with a respectable salary, a man who packs his three children into a minivan, he could live anywhere. He has made it.

But he stays. Mr. Fraser and his like-minded wife, Joesie Nelson, chose to raise their family here, even if that means living next door to poor neighbours who begrudge their good fortune. He deliberately chose to work in a school where white children are the lone visible minority and nearly two in three students speak a language other than English at home.

"My whole drive was to work in this community," he says. "Me giving back to what has shaped me. I wanted to be a positive role model — male, black, young — for a kid. The kids need me here."

Poverty is a legacy handed down through the generations. It starts with children who tend to be sicker, earn lower grades in school, and suffer from more behavioural problems. In later years, many will repeat family history.

But not always. Poverty is not a life sentence.

Canadians have wrung their hands over a child-poverty rate that has remained as stubborn as a stain over the past two decades, at nearly one in five children. It's only in the past few years that social scientists have found that a surprising four in 10 Canadians who start life at the bottom rung rise to the top half of the income ladder.

Mr. Fraser, 25, and Ms. Nelson, 26, belong with those who seize the opportunity to climb. Among the roughly 200,000 Canadians now in their twenties who grew up poor in the 1980s — when the poverty rate never slipped below 15 per cent — they broke with tradition as teenagers in the 1990s to chase higher education.

What set them apart from neighbours, also raised by single mothers in dilapidated apartments, who became pregnant as teenagers, quit school, and now collect welfare or juggle low-wage jobs? Why were they running for election to their high-school student council when neighbours like Jen McKenzie and Maxine Cadogan were dropping out and pushing baby strollers?

"What makes Canada different than the U.S. or the U.K.? It's got something to do with education policy and access to postsecondary education in a big way," said Miles Corak, director of family and labour studies at Statistics Canada. "And it's got something to do with early childhood investments and how you get those kids into a situation that they're able to choose whether they're going to have a postsecondary education or not."

  • Mr. Fraser is on recess duty.
  • Here in the Topcliff Public School playground, the demographics of the school are laid bare. Most of the faces in the crowd are shades of brown, the children of parents who hail from India, Africa, and the Caribbean, from Vietnam, China, and the Philippines. Most live in four nearby apartment high-rises.

    Mr. Fraser sees himself in these children whose futures are still blank slates, children being raised in an urban jungle without the music lessons, sports teams, and summer camps of the higher classes. He understands the powerful imprint he can leave, standing before them as a second-generation black immigrant from the neighbourhood.

    "Even in Grade 1," he said, "these kids know that I went to university. They know I went to York. They know that this is a place that is accessible to them. I still say, 'When you graduate from high school,' and 'When you go on to postsecondary,' so that it's not foreign to them. I want that to be something that's familiar."

    University was always a prospect for Mr. Fraser. He was raised by a tireless mother who returned to college in her forties, after her divorce, to become a nurse. He became close to a couple of teachers. One urged him to run for student council. Another enrolled him in a program that pairs Jane-Finch students with faculty at nearby York University. He would later land a scholarship at York that covered his tuition for the first few years.

    He started to hang out with the strait-laced crowd in his grungy, 25-storey apartment building. It was there he met Joesie, the daughter of a struggling single mother from Jamaica, whose ambition to climb from the poverty of welfare matched his own.

    She has a harder time tracing her rise. Her mother was laid-back; her father was absent. None of her teachers inspired her. But after years of skipping classes, hanging with the bad crowd, and dabbling in drugs and booze, she remembers acing a tough geography test in Grade 10. Suddenly she was basking in the realization she possessed the stuff of academic success.

    She remembers going to a youth group in her apartment building. The group leader showed the children an article titled Trapped in Poverty, suggesting that was their lot in life. Ms. Nelson recalls thinking, "That's not going to be me."

    When she found herself pregnant in her first year of university, she suddenly saw her brilliant future falling to pieces. Back at her old high school, the grapevine hummed with news that the stellar student had fallen from grace.

    "I'd made it that far," she said, "and was going to have to drop out and look after the child and repeat the cycle and be another poverty statistic."

    But her mother would have none of it. Though she had never pushed her daughter to attend university — no one in the family had ever graduated with a degree — she was not about to watch her slip into that trap. She quit her job to care for her granddaughter.

    "She knew I had the potential," Ms. Nelson said. "My mother would sacrifice anything for her kids."

    She became so smitten by the academic life that her sights are set on studying for a PhD, although for now she is consumed with her job as a community-development worker. Like her husband, she works in their old neighbourhood.

  • A handful of young women sit on lawn chairs in the backyard of a row of Jane-Finch townhouses, keeping an eye on their children who run back and forth from
  • the kitchen to the adjacent playground.

    Jen McKenzie, 23, suffers the late-afternoon heat. Seven months pregnant with her third child, she leans back in her chair to ease the weight of the bump under her red T-shirt and tucks into a cheese sandwich.

    She collects welfare and has never worked. By the time she was a teenager, she was spending far more time with boys than books. "Boys and sex were my drugs," she said simply.

    In Grade 9, she became pregnant. Since her daughter Tymika was born eight years ago, she has returned to school a few times to try to finish her high-school diploma. It never lasts long.

    "Every time I try to go to school, I get pregnant," said the blunt Ms. McKenzie, whose children are fathered by different men. "I was supposed to go to school this year, but I got pregnant with this one." She patted her belly.

    Her Jamaican-born mother raised the family without a father, sometimes collecting welfare, other times working odd jobs in a store, a hotel, an old-age home. Ms. McKenzie still lives with her in the same subsidized apartment.

    Her mother, who now collects social assistance, would like her to leave, finish school, find a husband and get a house with a white picket fence. While she resents the pressure, Ms. McKenzie confesses that she aspires to leave the neighbourhood that has trapped her mother. It is as if leaving Jane-Finch is a life's ambition on its own — a notch on the barometer of success, like a university degree or a lucrative job.

    "When I get a good job," she said dreamily, "I'm out of here. I've been here for 23 years, and I don't need to stay here for the next 23. I don't want that for my kids."

    Unlike her childhood friend Jen, Maxine Cadogan returned to high school a few years after her teenage pregnancy, dragging a baby, a stroller, and a two-year-old toddler on the bus every morning for two years.

    "I was tired of staying at home," said Ms. Cadogan, 25. "I was tired of waking up in the morning with nothing to do. I mean I was raising my kids, of course. But I wanted more for myself. I noticed every time my mom was coming home, me and her would argue. She was tired of seeing me around the house. I wasn't doing nothing with myself."

    Her mother, an immigrant from Barbados whose husband left when his daughter was six years old, had worked a handful of jobs at a time, often as a hotel chambermaid and a nursing assistant. She was seldom home to watch over her two sons and wild daughter.

    They lived across the street from a school, but her mother insisted Ms. Cadogan commute to one outside the confines of Jane-Finch to avoid unsavoury influences. It didn't work.

    "I grew up in the 'hood. Of course I got into trouble," said Ms. Cadogan, a striking woman with enormous brown eyes, and meticulously manicured nails. "I hung out with the wrong crowd. Basically it was boys. I wasn't into drugs."

    By Grade 10, she was pregnant with her elder son, Trayvon, 9, whose name is tattooed down her left arm. Her mother was "heartbroken."

    "It hurt her because she wanted me to go to school and get an education and do better," she said. "It put me in a big setback."

    A second son, Demar, arrived two years later. Ms. Cadogan now lives several blocks outside the projects in the basement of a house that her mother bought with savings from years of working night and day.

    Ms. Cadogan graduated from high school three years ago and landed a job as a receptionist at a medical clinic. She quit a few months ago and has started to upgrade her marks at a local high school; she wants to apply to college to study nursing.

    "Eventually, I want to go on to better. I don't want to stay here forever," she said. "There's so much more out there for me, so why should I stay at this level?"

  • It was not until Mr. Fraser and his wife reached university, outside the confines of their neighbourhood, that they realized how poor they were. Growing up, they had few possessions. But neither did anyone else.


  • that they are close to being middle-class parents, they are lavishing toys and clothes on their three children — Brianne and her two-year-old twin brothers, Brayden and Jayden — that they themselves were blissfully unaware of as children.

    Their daughter tears along the street on a Barbie bicycle and a scooter that are the envy of her poor friends. Some of the children are so jealous that they refuse to play with her. Their parents accuse Mr. Fraser and Ms. Nelson — whose salaries are far from lucrative and whose student loans are the size of a mortgage — of being rich and no longer belonging.

    But a nagging sense that their affluence is a passing phase — a fleeting stroke of luck that could turn sour in an instant — pushes Ms. Nelson to buy her daughter all that her heart desires while she can.

    "I always live with this fear of what happens if we lose it all," she said. "I wasn't born with money, so I know what it's like not to have it." ROBTv Workopolis