Our History

Our Location – Parkdale, Toronto

Parkdale is a working class and largely residential neighbourhood in the city of Toronto. Located in the south end of the city west of downtown, the Parkdale neighbourhood is bounded by the Gardner Expressway and Lake Ontario on the south, by Roncesvalles Avenue on the west, Dufferin Street on the east and by CP Rail lines and Bloor Street on the north. Parkdale began as an independent settlement in the 1850s and became an incorporated village in 1879. It was annexed into the growing city of Toronto in 1889.

In the first half of the 20th century Parkdale was a predominantly upper-class residential area. Its nature changed dramatically however when the Gardiner Expressway was constructed in 1955. The construction of the Gardiner Expressway resulted in the demolition of the southern portion of Parkdale along with the Sunnyside Amusement Park and the creation of a barrier between the neighbourhood and the lake shore. This was then followed by a boom in apartment construction which replaced whole blocks of homes. While some older residential buildings remained many of these were converted into rooming houses. The proportion of lower-income and newcomer residents increased dramatically. Parkdale has, as a result, become a working-class neighbourhood and an entry point for new immigrants from around the world. This has included waves of immigrants from the Caribbean, Vietnam, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, China and Hungary. Most recently there has been a notable influx of immigrants from South Asia and Tibet.

Despite recent social problems Parkdale has become known as a diverse neighbourhood with a distinct bohemian and artistic flair. In addition to the many ethnicities found in Parkdale it is the home of many artists and young professionals. Local businesses have undertaken many initiatives to reinvigorate the neighbourhood and numerous small parks, gardens and historic plaques have been put in place to enhance the neighbourhood’s vibrancy and to celebrate its village heritage. Parkdale residents feel a strong commitment to their community and have taken a very active role in the community’s revitalization.

From it’s very modest beginnings, with only a single part-time staff member and a number of volunteers in a small office in the basement of the Parkdale Public Library, ‘the Parkdale Intercultural Association has been a welcoming and supportive member of the Parkdale community for nearly forty years. In that time PIA has served newcomers to Parkdale with great dedication and has constantly grown and evolved to meet the expanding and ever-changing needs of the many newcomer communities in Parkdale . Our history will be traced back here through the decades in which we have strived to meet our mandate of supporting the full settlement and integration of Immigrants and refugees into Canadian society.

The 1970’s – A Seed is Planted

The Parkdale Intercultural Association (initially know as the ‘Parkdale Intercultural Council’) was founded in 1977 by an active and progressive group of Parkdale residents under the leadership of (now Judge) Rita Cox, then the Head Librarian at the Parkdale Public Library. More information about Rita Cox’s remarkable career and accomplishments is given in the next section of this webpage. The seed of the organization that would become the PIA was planted a few years earlier in 1975. Dr. Rita Cox and others at that time recognized a real need to promote literacy among the immigrant communities in Parkdale. Parkdale library staff and volunteers provided literacy and social-cultural activities such as the ‘Children’s Festival’ and ‘Christmas International’, that were widely accepted and greatly appreciated by their target audiences. The early success of these initiatives attracted the attention of political leaders in the municipal and provincial governments, in particular the provincial Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism, which offered funding to sustain them on an ongoing basis. This widespread recognition of the success, acceptance and benefits of offering settlement and community support to newcomers led to the establishment of PIA in 1977. PIA is proud of the role it has played as one of Toronto’s pioneering community agencies and how it has promoted and continues to promote both community unity and diversity.

The 1980’s – Growing in Strength

The programs and services offered by PIA continued to grow in scope, popularity and acceptance in the Parkdale community during the 1980’s. In addition to the ‘Children’s Festival’ and ‘Christmas International’, PIA also hosted a ‘Friendship Day’ and offered information sessions and workshops to assist participants with various life skills and settlement issues. This included workshops that dealt with issues such as racism, tenant’s rights and, in particular, the issue of ‘Family Violence, Access and Equality’, a workshop that was put together with the help of the Independent Living Women Project and was funded by the Ontario Women’s Directorate. At this time PIA began to receive funding from all levels of governments (Federal, Provincial and Municipal) as well as from private individuals and foundations.
PIA’s core activities of promoting literacy and English language proficiency received further support from grants provided by the federal Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration Canada under its ‘Settlement Language Training Project’. This federal initiative, as well as an ‘English as a Second Language’ program established in partnership with the Toronto District School Board were, in 1987, precursors of today’s country-wide LINC (Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada) programs. PIA was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1989.

The 1990’s – Widening PIA’s Focus

In the 1990’s PIA became increasingly aware that successful newcomer integration depended not only on English literacy but also on dealing with the diverse, complex and interconnected challenges that newcomers faced while attempting to settle into Canadian society. In response PIA began to offer one-on-one counselling and settlement services that complemented its expanding number of English language classes and aided newcomers with family issues and such tasks as obtaining citizenship, sponsoring family members, applying for assisted housing and job-search preparation. In addition to the LINC classes that PIA offers, these counselling and settlement services have become the core services that PIA provides to the community. To help fund these services PIA officially obtained charitable status in 1995.
Along with other community groups and agencies, PIA also received substantial grants from the Ontario Trillium Foundation in the 1990’s under the “Partnership for Community Building and Economic Development – Breaking New Ground” program. Through this program PIA was able to build ties and partnerships with various community groups and agencies which further improved its ability to offer holistic support to newcomer communities. PIA’s expanding newcomer support services were so well received at this time that it won an Award of Excellence for community service from the City of Toronto.
In the mid-nineties PIA also moved out of its original location in the Parkdale Public Library and opened an office at 1205 Queen St. West (currently the location of the Liberty Village Condo Building). This new location provided space for three English classrooms, offices and a childminding facility. In 1997, on the twentieth anniversary of its founding in 1977, PIA moved to its current main location at 1257 Queen Street West in Toronto, a location that provided space for larger classrooms, an expanded childminding facility and additional offices. PIA was also able to expand the focus of its workshops and events to include such issues as family violence, community economic development, community involvement, volunteerism and citizenship preparation. In 1995 PIA hosted its first Citizenship Ceremony. This initial ceremony was led by PIA founder Judge Rita Cox and was attended by over one hundred new Canadians. Citizenships ceremonies have since become an annual tradition at PIA.



The 2000’s – A Full Settlement Agency

In the 2000’s, with two decades of community service behind it, PIA had become a full settlement agency that, in addition to its core LINC, counselling and settlement services, provided a growing list of additional services that reflected its growing emphasis on newcomer empowerment and community building.
In 2000, PIA opened an ‘internet café’ style ‘Resource Centre’ on its premises. Funded with support from the Royal Bank of Canada and the United Way of Toronto, this service proved to be very popular and served nearly 400 residents in its first year. In 2006, PIA received a capital grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to purchase new computer equipment for this resource centre. Today the ‘Resource Centre’ receives ongoing funding from the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. The ‘Resource Centre’ currently serves, on average, about one thousand users per year.
In 2001, PIA conducted a survey on the ‘newcomer experience’ and investigated the various challenges that newcomers face while settling into the Parkdale community and integrating into Canadian society. At this time the City of Toronto also funded an initiative to map the locations of different community services in the Parkdale area. These initiatives strengthened PIA’s active ties with the Parkdale Economic Development Corporation and other local community agencies. In 2003, PIA further enhanced its ties with local agencies when it established new partnerships with the Parkdale/High Park branch of Employment and Social Services and with St. Christopher House (now known as West Neighbourhood House). Working with St. Christopher House, along with the Canada Revenue Agency, PIA helped to establish a free income tax clinic for low income residents. PIA has maintained strong partnerships with these agencies and continues to participate in providing annual ‘free income tax clinics’. Today, PIA provides a year round income tax service and is an active member of the Community Income Tax Program with the Canadian Revenue Agency. We have been recognized by the Canadian Revenue Agency for our participation in the program since 2013 and have assisted almost 1700 individuals and families from all over the GTA.
PIA’s LINC services also expanded significantly at this time. In 2005 the LINC program established guidelines that standardized LINC training throughout Canada. In addition to adhering to these guidelines PIA increased the number of LINC classes offered from three classes to six by providing classes for two additional advanced LINC levels (levels 6 and 7) and establishing a night class for conversational English. These classes were also supplemented with computer assisted training and chid care support services.
In 2007, PIA became a participant in the ‘Immigration Adaption and Settlement Program (ISAP)’ that was established by the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration to fund the delivery of settlement services throughout Canada. With funding from this program PIA was able to increase its capacity to address the settlement needs of newcomers. PIA increased its staff of full-time and part-time workers to thirty workers.

The 2010’s and Beyond – PIA’s Continuing Legacy

In 2011, as part of its efforts to increase its capacity to serve the community, PIA opened a second location at 1365 Queen Street West in Toronto. This new location provides space for two new classrooms, additional offices and a large common area suitable for workshops and community events. PIA also became a member of OCASI (The Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants) and of the Toronto West LIP (Local Immigration Partnership).
Our agency has now grown to thirty-five full-time and part-time staff members and relies on the invaluable efforts of over one hundred volunteers. PIA staff members offer their services in a very positive and supportive environment. In addition to dealing with serious matters that often significantly impact the lives of new residents, PIA also recognizes the importance of cultural and social interaction as part of becoming a new Canadian. This is reflected in a number of events that have become a tradition at PIA. This includes our annual ‘Pumpkin “Makeup” Day’ at Halloween and our annual ‘Newcomers Day’ celebration that features participants dressed in traditional costumes. It also includes our annual ‘Festive Season Celebrations’, which started out as ‘Christmas International’ events nearly forty years ago. We also offer ‘Newcomer Youth’ and ‘Senior Programs’ that offer a wide range of recreational activities that are not only fun but which also promote cultural appreciation and social interaction between various newcomer communities and with established communities.
PIA truly celebrates the diversity and the community harmony that has, with the welcoming of so many
immigrant communities, undoubtedly become Toronto’s greatest asset. PIA has served approximately 120,000 residents since 1977 and currently serves approximately 3,000 clients every year from its two
locations. We feel that the positive impact that we have had on the lives of so many new Canadians is truly PIA’s continuing legacy.

Our Founder – Dr. Rita Cox

A librarian, author, renowned
story-teller and community
leader, Rita Cox is also a
member of ‘The Order of Canada’
and the founder of the
Parkdale Intercultural Association


Born in Trinidad and immersed in a culture of reading and storytelling as a child, Rita Cox found it  “a natural thing to happen” when she joined the Toronto Public Library as a children’s librarian in 1960 after studying the field in New York.
In 1972 she became head of the Parkdale Branch and launched literacy programs and other initiatives that promoted multiculturalism throughout Toronto.  One such initiative was begun in response to the needs of the many new immigrants that made Parkdale their home.  Run out of a small office in the basement of the Parkdale library, it had just one staff member but many volunteers.  For nearly forty years this initiative, the Parkdale Intercultural Association, has played a vital role in facilitating the settlement and integration of newcomers.  Even with such successes Rita Cox is quick to credit the support of her employers and of the community.  “This community kept me and this library kept me”, she said. “This library system empowered me. The support I got for all the initiatives that I made, I can never forget”.
Another one of her initiatives began in an effort to preserve the rich Caribbean literary tradition she had grown up with and to pass it on to the growing Caribbean immigrant community in Parkdale.
It resulted in a book collection that is now named the “Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage
Collection’ in her honour.  It is considered one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in Canada.  She also founded the Parkdale Community Information Center in 1976, which continues to operate in the Parkdale Public library to the present day.
After her retirement  from the Toronto Public library in 1995  Rita Cox was appointed a Citizenship Court Judge by the government of Canada.  She has garnered numerous additional awards and honours including:   The Canadian Library Associations Public Service Award
   The Black Achievement Award
   Member of the Order of Canada (1997)
   Honorary doctorates from Wilfred Laurier University and York University.
   A public park has been named in her honour at 14 Machells Avenue, Toronto
(near Dufferin Ave. and King Street West.).

A librarian, author, renowned
story-teller and community
leader, Rita Cox is also a
member of ‘The Order of Canada’
and the founder of the
Parkdale Intercultural Association


Dr. Cox was appointed to the Ontario Art Council’s Board of Directors (2004-2010) and continues to serve as a director on the board of the Parkdale Intercultural Association.

Dr. Tabit and Rita Cox

Chair of the Parkdale
Intercultural Association Dr. Mohamed Tabit
receives a plaque from PIA’s founder Rita Cox during the PIA’s 35th
Annual General Meeting  (Jan. 25, 2013)