This week we’re speaking with Caroline di Cocco about her experiences working to preserve the history, language, and culture of one of Canada’s largest immigrant groups: the Italian-Canadians.
Italians make up a large part of the history of Canadian immigration. In the 2011 census 1.5 million Canadians (4.6% of our total population) stated they are at least partially of Italian heritage. The Italians who came, and come, to Canada with their language (or languages, but more on that later), become a part of Canada’s language landscape. It is the work of Caroline di Cocco, and others across Canada, to preserve their stories, experiences, and their language. Not just for their descendants, but for all Canadians.Michael Iannozzi : What led you to get involved in documenting the heritage of Italians in Canada?
Caroline Di Cocco : I began documenting the story of the Italian-Canadian Presence around the mid-1980’s. I tried to find some history about the Italian presence in the Sarnia area. The closest thing I was able to find in the written history of Sarnia was that there was a growth of the Italian population in Sarnia in the 1950’s due to the growth of the refineries. I was driven by this question: how did the Italian-Canadian presence change the community of Sarnia-Lambton, and how were the Italians changed by having created a new home and a new life in the area? I felt a profound sense that if we did not take on the responsibility to research and document stories of the Italian-Canadian presence, these stories would be lost for future generations.
MI : What has been the immigration history? When did the Italian-canadians come to Canada?
CDC : The Italian immigration history has many complexities that fill volumes of books. In this response I can only touch on a couple of aspects. These stories are built of struggle, sacrifice, survival, resourcefulness, hard work, adjustment, and success; and in the creation of an identity which is unique from that of Italians in Italy. This was created out of holding on to one’s identity and values while at the same time re-creating that identity in a Canadian context. The Italian immigration story of Sarnia Lambton is written in a book called “One by One… Passo dopo passo.” In the introduction, Dr. Gabriele Scardellato writes, “From the late 1870s to the early 1980’s a total of some 630,000 Italians had immigrated to Canada”. In our research of the area we found evidence of a Charles Ribighini in 1870 who came to work in the oil fields in the Petrolia area [This may be the first Italian to come to Canada, although no one can ever know for sure].
Numerous stories of this history and experience is dispersed across the country and in personal collections. These collected histories of Italian-Canadians are fragmented and many of the stories are hidden from the public. More research needs to be done because collections and personal histories are being lost or forgotten with each generation.
In order to have the Italian-Canadian stories preserved, made accessible, and to document the ones that have yet to be told, the Italian-Canadian Archives Project (ICAP) was founded.
MI : What is the Italian-Canadian Archive Project?
CDC : The Italian-Canadian Archives Project “ICAP” is a not-for-profit organization, incorporated to promote and organize a national strategy to gather, preserve and make accessible material about the Italian-Canadian experience across the country. To this end, ICAP has created a Canada-wide network of established and emerging researchers in the field of Italian-Canadian studies to collaborate, partner and connect with other individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions across Canada who are interested in the Italian-Canadian experience. Through this network, ICAP works to encourage and support activities to preserve and provide access to materials on the Italian-Canadian experience.
MI : Why is it important to preserve the Italian spoken by the immigrants to Canada and their descendants?
CDC : I believe that the identity of one’s heritage is directly tied to that specific language. By understanding and speaking the language of one’s heritage, you create a stronger connection to the culture and you are able to engage others with others within that community, which makes one feel more a part of that heritage.
MI : How does the archive use the materials it gathers to create this stronger connection?
CDC : ICAP does not collect materials directly, but facilitates the preservation of collections. It does this through its national network of experts who assist in identifying collections that are at risk, and help to direct these collections to archives such as the National Museum of History, or to local archives. All across Canada ICAP members assist in bringing together Italian-Canadian communities to engage in the conversation about their Italian-Canadian stories, and to encourage the local communities to collect, preserve, and make accessible their history. We encourage people that their stories are an important part of Canada’s History; assist them, with the help of experts, on how they can preserve their history; provide workshops; and to connect like-minded communities who are doing this kind of work. Finally, we provide support and advice to ensure that any materials are preserved in either a local, provincial, university or national archive.
By keeping these documents, stories and artifacts in archives, it ensures that they are professionally managed, catalogued, and over time, digitized and made accessible to all Canadians.
MI : Why is it important to record the voices and histories of the Italian immigrants and their families?
CDC : The voices and histories of the Italian immigrant tells of experiences of dramatic change in people’s lives and how their lives impacted communities into which the settled. These stories are about people who for the most part came from very humble origins. The stories are important in so many ways, and I believe we have a responsibility to make certain future generations can also hear them. If we do not document our history then who will? After all, it helps us to understand ourselves and how we fit into the fabric of Canada.
MI : How are culture and language tied together?
CDC : Culture and language are intrinsically tied to one another. Cultural identity is imbedded in language in so many ways. For example, take the Italian relationship to food. When a table is considered as its physical noun, it is gender neutral “il tavolo”. When a table has been set for dining for guests, or is prepared for the family to sit and eat, then it is no longer just a physical and objective object, and the feminine gender is used “la tavola”.
MI : What do the experiences of the Italian immigrants tell us about language and immigration more broadly?
CDC : The stories and experiences tell us that although people adapt, adjust, and rebuild a life in a new country, their identity is intrinsically connected to their language and place of origin. The shaping of their values and thinking is in large part connected to their roots. Their behaviour is in many ways shaped by the place of origin, and closely tied to their heritage. Basically I see that the day-to-day lives of the immigrants, although they are now for all intents and purposes Canadian, are full of habits and ways of life that are closely linked to their ethnic and historical heritage [For instance, my gramma still gets up and bakes fresh bread at 78 years of age almost daily. She has friends that have “secret” places where they harvest wild asparagus and mushrooms each year, and only pass on the location to their children. And the full moon of October is still used for when wine pressed in garages is bottled or racked].
MI : You published a book on the history of Italians in the town of Sarnia (which happens to also be my hometown). What has been the experience and history of the Italians of southwestern Ontario, and does it differ from the experiences of Italians elsewhere in Canada?
CDC : I find that there are many similarities but also significant differences. The stories have a similar theme no matter where the Italians settled, not just in Canada, but around the world. For the most part, the values of a strong work ethic, and close family units are a common theme anywhere you go.
My observations have been that in smaller towns and cities, Italians seem to have integrated more quickly within the Canadian community, although they continue to maintain a pride of their heritage. In smaller centers those of Italian origin identify themselves as either Italian-Canadians, or simply as Canadians with Italian background. In large centres, where the number of Italians is in the hundreds of thousands, such as Toronto, they have create “little Italys”, and seem to stay connected more to their place of origin. From my conversations with many groups and individuals, they seem to identify more with Italy.
When the conversation of Italian-Canadian history takes place, I have found that in small centres it is about the journey here to Canada, whereas in large cities it seems to be about what constitutes being Italian.
MI : Are there differences in the Italian spoken in Sarnia, vs Windsor, vs Toronto, vs elsewhere in Canada? Why would that be?
CDC : Because of “chain migration” [Which allows an immigrant, once given citizenship or permanent residence status, to sponsor or bring extended family to join them in their new country], people from the same town or same regions of Italy settled in the same places in Canada. Because most people who emigrated had very little education, they did not speak Italian, but their specific dialects, which often are very different languages. For instance if the group was from Sicily, they spoke Sicilian. For someone like me, who is from Central Italy, Sicilian is a foreign language.
There are many different dialects all coming from Italy. These dialects are all labelled Italian; however, they are distinct. Depending on where the specific clusters of Italian immigrants settled, you will see a common dialect. For example, the majority of Italians to settle in Sarnia come from southern Lazio, known as Ciociaria, so you have that dialect spoken. In Toronto the largest number of immigrants come from Calabria, with many from Sicily, some from Friuli, Abruzzo, Molise, whereas a much smaller number are from southern Lazio. Not only do you have different “Italian” spoken from city to city, but also great variation within the cities.
It is only over the last maybe 20 years, due to mass education, that most people speak “standard” Italian in Italy, and unfortunately the dialects are being lost.
MI : Do you feel that the experience of “being Italian” in Canada has changed over the past 50 years?
CDC : Yes I think it has changed from “Italian-ness” initially having a negative or pejorative connotation to being “in” today. The experience has changed because the Italians earned the respect of other Canadians along the way. As Canadians interacted with Italians they were less uncertain about them. This understanding has led to the appreciation of the Italian values of hard work, family, good food and so on, and of course this worked in reverse too as Italians more-and-more integrated into Canadian society.
Unfortunately, this acceptance has led to the perception that Italian is not needed, and a decreased interest in learning Italian. There are fewer and fewer Italian-Canadians today who speak Italian.There is a phrase, “Hyphenated Canadian”. It represents the idea that many Canadians don’t identify as simply Canadian. If you ask many Canadians, including many in my own family, they don’t say they are Canadian, rather they say they are “X-Canadian”. For example, they may consider themselves “Italian-Canadian”, or maybe even just “Italian”(the Canadian part being assumed).
Very few Canadians, if they are willing to go back a couple of generations, will find that their ancestors were living in Canada. We are a nation of nationalities. Canadians are First Nations, Inuit, and Metis, but Canadians are also Somali, Ukrainian, and Thai. These heritages shape us individually, and also as a nation. Italian isn’t something I may need to use on a daily basis, but it helps me feel more connected with my past.
I actually consider myself just simply “Canadian”, I don’t use a hyphen, but my family is made up of Italian and Dutch, and that is part of my reality as a Canadian. What it means to be Canadian is as diverse as the nationalities, peoples, and languages that make up our country, and that is one of my favourite things about being Canadian.
And because it would be irresponsible, and an abnegation of my duty to not provide you with Italian tasty recipes, here are some:
Take care eh,