My mother always remembered her first impression of Canada. She’d arrived with the family at Pier 21 in Halifax after a three-week journey from Calabria, the poorest part of southern Italy. She was sick, but they had to board the train for a 4,700 km trip to Prince Rupert, B.C. Another passenger noticed my mother’s plight and insisted on buying her a meal. It left an indelible impression. For my mother, Canada was a place where strangers were kind.
My grandfather Francesco brought the family to Canada in 1959. In that postwar decade more than 239,000 Italians immigrated here – farmers and masons, bakers and butchers. Toronto was the second-largest Italian city in the world, outside Italy and New York.
Francesco was an arborist from a village called Rizziconi. He tended the orange groves. It sounds like a colourful Italian movie, but it was a hard living for a family with seven children. In those years many Italians left for a better life abroad in the United States, Australia and Argentina – and Prince Rupert.
Francesco knew an uncle with the CPR, so that’s where they settled. My mother found a job in a cannery. Later, my father joined the Carpenters & Sheet Metal Workers’ Union. There was always work in construction or at the pulp mill, or minding the store. It was a good place to build a life.
Italians came to Canada with nothing. Theirs was not a celebrated arrival. There were no Welcome Wagons or resettlement programs or language training. In 1961 Ontario’s provincial secretary said of Italian-Canadians, “They need to learn about us, about our way of doing things, the ideas and institutions we prize, and to acquire some work skills.” When the CBC broadcast a 1963 documentary on our community they called it Ciao Maria and profiled a singing barber. As late as 1971 the Globe & Mail would still publish a Letter to the Editor that complained you can’t invite Italians to dinner: “They bring their own gallon of wine.”
Every generation of new Canadians has a similar story. There is an old Italian proverb, “Time is a perfect gentleman.”
I count myself lucky to have known my grandfather. He was spirited, funny and optimistic. He made wine and grew tomatoes; we always spoke in Italian. Many times he took me back to Calabria to revisit his boyhood home and walk through the orange groves, and see where the olives were pressed. Francesco always reminded us: we were Canadians first, Italians second.
Canada was our land of opportunity. Francesco vowed it was our responsibility to work hard, and to expect nothing from the government. My grandfather explained it in a word known to every Italian who immigrated to Canada in those postwar years: sacrifici.
(Editor’s note: the author is Liberal MP for Vaughan-Woodbridge, Ont. and parliamentary secretary for revenue)