Measuring Retirement in Stories

When I retired from my last school, this building was barely started. Now I think it is the tallest building in the city, a soon-to-be-open condo high-rise in Little Italy.

We took part in a Jane Jacobs Walk in Ottawa this morning, one of sixty planned for this weekend. A pretty wonderful to start a weekend and expand one’s horizons.

After a long really dreadful winter here, it was very good to get out. Our guide was Luciano Pradal, a 77-year-old human repository of the cultural history of Little Italy. I remember Luciano from my time as principal at St. Anthony School. We were looking for ways to install new gardens to grow food at our school and Luciano came in to talk to me about what we might be able to put together.

This project never took off, but Luciano was a real treat to meet. He introduced me to his book, Chronicles of a Chestnut Lover and I learned more about this wonderful part of the city.

My time at St. Anthony’s was full of encounters like this one and taking part in this Jane’s Walk reminded me of the wonderful people I encountered while I worked here. Today, I took a picture of the tower because it is a good reminder of how much has happened since I left. Our son Liam gave me the title to go with the photo and it really fits.

This neighbourhood is full of great stories. Not only of its Italian past but also of its current immigrant population which now is mainly from Asia. It is also a very high-risk neighbourhood with many rooming houses and drop-in centres for the homeless. It is such a diverse setting for a Jane Jacobs Walk and it truly represents what a livable city can be. It is culturally diverse with a tradition of housing groups of new Canadians that find their collective grounding and move on.

Now with giant condo projects, one of the main threats to this neighbourhood is gentrification as it also has become one of the most fashionable parts of the city.

As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know everything I could about this community. It was thrilling to work in such a rich and exciting part of the city and I really wanted our school to be an active part of the fabric of little Italy. If I miss anything about my teaching career, I miss this place.

The streets of Little Italy. New condos and derelict buildings waiting to turn a big profit.

There is something that can get lost once you retire. Your world can grow a little small. As a principal, I saw it as my role to get to know this area very well. Meetings with people like Luciano were opportunities to connect and learn where I was. Walking along Preston and Booth streets today was a good reminder.

You need – or maybe I should say – I need – to stay connected. I need to walk the streets and see how my city may be changing. Whole blocks of social housing have been demolished since I left the school. Acres of old federal buildings are about to be repurposed for mixed residential use. This could be a really cool development for Ottawa!

At the end of the walk, I made a point to visit the bust of Dante that sits across from my old school. This bust used to stand right next to the school. It now sits in a little piazza directly across from the church.


St. Anthony’s started out as Dante Academy and the church across from the school celebrated its 100 anniversary in 2013. We have seen wonderful old photos of celebratory masses and marches past the school and the church during religious festivals. The community has changed since these days but there are still Italian celebrations every year that include an old car show, a gala, a great bike race, and lots of other festivities.

Dante Academy class 1925

I remember recovering the memorial to students who fought in the Second World War that had been on loan to the local church. It now (I hope) still hangs in the main hall of the school, a testament to the long history of the two schools in the community.

It is amazing that a walk can stir up so many memories of the past and expectations for the future. After a long winter, we all need to get involved in some purposeful walking. Get out and see what is out there still. Take a morning or a whole day to extend yourself into the community we are all still a part of.

Learn and listen and don’t become small. Yes, I am retired and my world does seem a little small sometimes. But a walk with twenty people you don’t know but who share a love of the city is a good way to stretch into a new season, one where winter has finally retreated.

Luciano finishes the walk in front of St. Anthony’s Church

Building Stronger Communities – School Boards Should be More Involved

Last week there was a great announcement in our school neighbourhood. The City of Ottawa, Ottawa Community Housing and surprisingly, the French Public School Board of Eastern Ontario have joined together to develop a 7-acre piece of land right in the heart of Ottawa. The project will include affordable housing, a new French public school, single-family homes, and businesses to support the new community. The development has the potential to stretch into a 15-acre project if an additional piece of land adjacent to this section can be brought in.

The new development is called Gladstone Village and it has the potential to transform this neighbourhood in some really important ways. In my opinion, the most significant aspect will be the addition of good, affordable housing for families that live in this community.

I have worked in this community for three years as a principal of a local school and now as a community volunteer.

One of the saddest parts of my job as a principal was to say goodbye to families who could no longer afford to live in this wonderful community. Housing prices have been going up steadily in the area, forcing lower income families to move to other parts of the city that generally are not as well set up to offer important social services to these families.

Hopefully, with the building of Gladstone Villiage, this trend can be reversed.

What is especially gratifying is to see a public school board take an active role in the partnership that will construct the new village. This is unusual. School boards traditionally do not get overly involved in community development. As traditional institutions, they see their primary role as educators of children, not community developers.

The French Public Board is showing that things can change and school boards can take an active role in developing and enriching the communities that surround them. What school boards will find once they start looking to get more involved is that there are lots of organizations out there that would love to work with them.

While I was principal of St. Anthony School – close to the new village – we developed some incredible partnerships with organizations like the Aviva Community Fund, TD Friends of the Environment, (@TDFEF), Evergreen Canada, the City of Ottawa and the wonderful local Italian community. Together, these groups helped us to raise over $165,000.00 in less than two years to transform our dilapidated school yard.

the new yard – the shrubs, fencing, grass and stone paving are all part of the renovation 

Evergreen consulted all the students and developed the first plan for the yard. The Italian community got interested and held a huge fundraising dinner for the school – over 400 people attended and we made over $20,000 in one night. We entered the Aviva Community Fund competition and with the help of a huge on-line community, won $100,000. The Ottawa Community Foundation also made a very significant contribution allowing us to complete the renovation of the yard.

Along with Gladstone Village, this is a great example of partners coming together to reshape and build a new community.

Education institutions like our school and the Eastern Ontario French Public Board illustrate the importance of reaching out into the community to create something better for our families.

It is no longer acceptable to sit back and wait for the students to show up. This passive approach misses many opportunities to engage actively in the community.

We could have done more. We could have opened adult literacy classes for parents at night or during the day so that they could stay close to their children. We could have constructed a computer room with free wifi so that parents could access the internet – something many of them could not do from their homes. We could have offered space in our building for community agencies to connect more readily with the families they served.

All of these ideas were discussed and unfortunately, none were ever implemented.

That is too bad. This has to change.

School Boards need to start to realize that their buildings do not belong to them, they are community assets that need to be shared. The community can not be blocked out of these spaces, they need to be welcomed in. Education really needs to become public in a much wider sense. To ignore our larger public responsibility is to retreat back into the 19th century – we simply can’t do that.

Congratulations to the Conseil des écoles publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario.