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Culture

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Italians/Franc Sturino

The cultural life of Italians in Canada has been multifaceted. It has involved both the cultural inheritance transplanted from Italy and the evolution of uniquely Italian-Canadian forms; it has included the transmitted classical culture of Italy as well as the lived folk culture of ordinary people; and it has comprised cultural expression that reflected local, regional, and national attributes, both in Italy and in Canada. Formal transmission has been accomplished through the church, the media, and a myriad of associations, from sports clubs to theatre groups.

Italian-Canadian culture can be defined as the manner in which the human expression of the ethnic group differs from that of other Canadians. This cultural expression is variegated and ranges from the characteristically Mediterranean way of tending home vegetable gardens to the establishment of Italian language classes by the Dante Alighieri Society or the formation of an Italian-Canadian hockey league in southern Ontario.

Within this intricate tapestry of group behaviour, four major, though intertwined, phases can be distinguished through which particular tendencies came to the fore. Between 1880 and the late 1920s, cultural expression in Canada’s Little Italys revolved around family, hometown fellowship, and neighbourhood. Celebrations of baptisms and weddings, paese picnics, and working-class camaraderie were only a few of the community forms of cultural expression. At the more formal levels of association, the culture of Italian Canadians could be witnessed at specific events, repeated in numerous Little Italys, such as the popular celebration of the Madonna de Monte feste organized by the Racalmutese (hometown) mutual-aid society, established in Hamilton in 1918, the performances of the Maple Leaf Band, founded by Trail’s Italians in 1908, and the games of the fifty Italian-Canadian soccer teams that had been formed in Montreal by 1925.

While grassroots ethnic expression remained robust after 1930, there was a definite swing towards the “official” culture as the fascist regime and its local nationalist allies attempted to appropriate Italy’s cultural inheritance for their own political ends. In major Italian centres across Canada, this alliance between fascist officials and local elites led to the establishment of case d’Italia – all-purpose community centres that had as their underlying purpose propagation of the fascist agenda and the cultivation of local support for it. By the mid-1930s, for example, Toronto’s Casa d’Italia, as well as housing the vice-consular offices, was home to various recreational, sporting, and youth groups and a language school. The vice-consul and his local allies (both Italian and Canadian) sought to disseminate the canonical culture of Italy through public lectures, language courses, and the press. The conflating of Italian culture with political propaganda proved unfortunate. When World War II broke out, many Italians rejected not only the fascist regime but also their cultural heritage.

The third phase of cultural expression was marked by the massive post-war immigration of Italians. The new arrivals felt few of the qualms of their pre-war counterparts in expressing their italianità. Such was especially the case with the educated minority, who asserted their cultural identity through the establishment of theatre groups such as Piccolo Teatro Italiano (Little Italian theatre) of Toronto, music groups such as the renowned Italian choir of Hamilton, and Dante Alighieri societies established expressly for the promotion of Italian culture in cities from Montreal to Vancouver. For the mass of immigrants, however, who faced the necessities of making a living and were characterized by limited education, culture was defined by the folk traditions and lived experience of everyday life. Paese and patron saint’s clubs, rites of passage, dialects and regional food specialities, piazza-like gatherings at the thoroughfares and churches of Little Italy, gift exchanges among kindred, backyard gardens, and Italianate home renovations all characterized the common Italian immigrant culture of the 1950s and 1960s.

The fourth phase ran parallel to the consolidation of the Italian-Canadian community after 1970. It involved a cultural cohesion that brought together the metropolitan culture of Italy, the local folk culture of immigrants, and an increasingly important and evolving Italian-Canadian culture defined by the second and subsequent generations. The extensive post-war influx into Canada gave Italians the ethno-cultural mass to forge an identity that was multi-layered, robust, and capable of longterm survival. As well, cultural maintenance was facilitated by the government policy of multiculturalism, which replaced the anglo-conformity that had prevailed for over a century. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, established by the federal government in 1963, in its report six years later acknowledged the pluralistic nature of Canadian society while reaffirming its linguistic duality.

Although the recognition of cultural pluralism resulted in part from the reality that by 1961 the British had declined to a minority of 44 percent, while those of non-British, non-French origin now formed over one-quarter of the Canadian population, this enlightened attitude also reflected the tenacity of ethnic groups, including the Italian, in maintaining their cultural identity and effectively mobilizing in order to have their status recognized within the collective polity. In 1971 Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau officially enunciated the federal government’s commitment to multiculturalism, leading the way for similar programs at the provincial and local levels throughout Canada. It was within this context that the Italian-Canadian cultural renaissance was to take place and to become increasingly integrated within the mainstream of Canadian society.

A major part of culture, although by no means essential for the survival of other aspects, is language. Since a non-state language is one of the most difficult elements to preserve, its degree of persistence serves as a clear indicator of the survival of other, more resistant cultural signifiers, such as food habits, primary group relationships, values, and identification. Language facility can be measured in a number of ways, but the use of mother-tongue statistics, which denote the language first learned, is a good compromise between the more stringent measure of home language, which provides lower estimates, and the more lenient test of ability to speak Italian, which results in higher ones.

Not unexpectedly, Italian as a mother tongue in Canada was greatly bolstered by post-war immigration. Whereas in 1951, 60 percent of the Italian ethnic group, numbering 152,245, claimed the language as their mother tongue, twenty years later, at the end of the era of mass migration, the proportion had increased to 74 percent out of 730,820. By 1991, a generation later, mother-tongue persistence had decreased to 68 percent, or 511,000 out of an ethnic population of three-quarters of a million. Despite this decline, Italian managed to increase its relative position in Canada from fourth in 1971 (after German) to the third most used language twenty years later, when measured as a person’s ability to speak it.

Regionally, the proportion of the ethnic group that maintained Italian as its mother tongue in Ontario was virtually the same as for the nation as a whole: 67 percent. For the four Atlantic and four western provinces the proportion was lower at 35 and 59 percent respectively. On the other hand, in Quebec Italian linguistic persistence was highest, involving over 76 percent of the group. Interestingly, while Italians in Quebec had the highest level of language maintenance in Canada, within the province they constituted one of the most integrated ethnic groups in relation to the majority francophone society. In 1991, out of 133,210 people with Italian as their first learned language, 84 percent spoke French, a substantial increase from 64 percent twenty years earlier. Moreover, three times as many Italians in 1991 spoke only French, compared to those who spoke only English. An impressive 65 percent were trilingual. Italians apparently attained the highest level of French-language facility of any major ethnic group in Quebec (including the British).

This linguistic integration did not occur without difficulty. During the 1960s and 1970s, Quebec adopted a language policy aimed at preserving French in the face of encroaching English-language usage. While initially this approach resulted in friction between francophones and Italian Canadians, the latter have adapted well to legislation implemented between 1968 and 1976 that sought to promote French as the medium of instruction and general use.

It is also interesting to note that nationally the 1991 census showed 180,900 more people who reported the ability to speak Italian over the mother-tongue designation. Italian learned as a second language, whether in the home or the classroom, provided over 700,000 Italian Canadians (of both single and multiple origin) with a valuable window on the culture. Moreover, a university survey conducted in 1978–79 in Toronto found that 55 percent of secondgeneration Italian Canadians and 46 percent of the third had a knowledge of Italian. Of those who could speak the language, three-quarters of the second generation used it everyday, and one-quarter of the third generation spoke it occasionally. The survey found that generally the use of spoken Italian was higher than for the languages of the other major groups studied – Germans, Ukrainians, and Jews – reflecting both the large size of the community and the high degree of institutional completeness.

Such evidence suggests that, at least in the major Italian communities, the degree of language loss has not been as rapid or steep as is often assumed. The expansion of Italian-language mass media in the post-war period provided Italian Canadians with the opportunity to maintain their language more successfully than ever before. Familiarity with it could lead to increased immersion in both the Italian-Canadian and Italian cultural worlds, and reciprocally this participation could encourage greater facility with the language per se. As a means of offsetting generational mother-tongue loss, the teaching of Italian was indispensable for language maintenance.

In the post-war era, language instruction was a grassroots affair organized by various bodies: the Catholic Church, the Sons of Italy, and foremost the Dante Alighieri Society. Characteristically, classes were held on Saturday afternoons in community and parish halls, though a significant exception was provided in Montreal, where the Catholic School Commission, beginning in the mid-1950s, allowed ethnic groups to use school facilities. The adoption of an official policy of multiculturalism by the Canadian government in 1971 prepared the ground for a major expansion in the teaching of non-official languages in the classroom. In the same year Alberta became the first province to allow third-language instruction in its elementary school system. The success of this venture, along with mounting pressure from ethnic groups in central Canada, resulted in Ontario and Quebec introducing heritage language programs in the late 1970s. By the middle of the next decade all provinces except in Atlantic Canada had developed third-language programs in their public school systems, which included Italian where sufficient demand existed.

The Italian community of Toronto was particularly well prepared to take advantage of the opportunity provided by multiculturalism. In 1976 the Centro Canadese Scuola e Cultura Italiana (Canadian Centre for Italian Education and Culture) had been established under the aegis of the National Congress of Italian Canadians in order to promote the study of Italian. It was soon the most widely taught non-official language of the almost two dozen introduced by the mid-1980s. By the end of the decade, over 40,000 students were enrolled in Italian courses (three-quarters within regular school hours), comprising up to half the total student enrolment in heritage language programs. It can be estimated that a quarter of the students were from non-Italian backgrounds, thus giving support to the interethnic communication envisaged by the multicultural policy. While third languages can be taken for credit in Canadian high schools and Italian fares moderately well relative to others, the level of teaching falls far short of what might be expected, given the size of the Italian-Canadian community. Likewise, of the dozen universities that offer the language, only the University of Toronto maintains a graduate program.

Central to Italian-Canadian culture has been the role of the Italian-language media. They have been both a prime means of cultural transmission and a major manifestation of the culture. As in the host society, newspapers and periodicals traditionally formed the undisputed vehicle for the transmission of information and matters of community interest. The function of the press was, of course, increasingly replaced by radio and television in the post-war period.

The rich array of Italian-language publications that had been established in the Little Italys across Canada – just like the various Italian-Canadian associations – was severely damaged by the reaction against the community during World War II. Not only were politically affiliated newspapers shut down, whether of the right or of the left, but major mainstream publications also found that wartime hostility and community retrenchment made their continuation impossible. Throughout the early twentieth century, the Italian-language press had steadily increased its circulation from 3,000 in 1911 to 22,000 in 1939, on the eve of the war. The war years, however, decimated the print media. Across Canada the only regular paper that managed to survive the trauma was the weekly Il Cittadino Canadese (The Canadian Citizen; Montreal, 1941– ), which gained the distinction of being the country’s oldest Italian-language newspaper. In the immediate post-war period there were no Italian-Canadian newspapers published anywhere in Ontario. Readers there had to be satisfied with Il Progresso Italo-Americano (Italian-American Progress; New York, 1880– ), or with Montreal’s Cittadino Canadese. Italians in western Canada were served by La voce del popolo (The Voice of the People; San Francisco, 1867–1943) and L’Italia (Italy; San Francisco, 1889– ).

The post-war influx of new immigrants changed this situation dramatically. The hunger for news and information was evident, even among the early immigrant workers spread throughout the Canadian hinterland. In the early 1950s the weekly La Verità (The Truth; Montreal, 1947–55), controlled by the Gattuso family, reached readers among the 10,000 Italian workers scattered along the CNR system from Quebec to British Columbia through the distribution network of the R.F. Welch Company, which had supply centres in Port Arthur and Toronto.

Rapid growth in the major Italian enclaves provided the impetus for a revival in Italian-language publications. Advertisers supported the ventures as they sought to reach the new immigrants, who had quickly established a reputation as reliable customers. Prominent Italian Canadians launched Il Corriere Canadese (The Canadian Courier; Toronto, 1954– ), published by Daniel Iannuzzi, the son of the publishers of La Verità. The success of the newspaper spurred several additional ventures in Toronto, the Niagara peninsula, and other areas of Italian settlement. In the west, the Italian community established L’Eco d’Italia (The Echo of Italy; Vancouver, 1956– ), which was followed by similar endeavours, including papers in Calgary and Edmonton. Montreal, meanwhile, continued to expand its Italian-language publications, with half a dozen major papers throughout the 1950s and 1960s. By the early 1960s the circulation of the Italian-language press across Canada had reached 120,000. At the end of the decade the weekly Il Corriere Italiano (The Italian Courier; Montreal, 1954– ) published 36,000 copies, making it the largest non-English, non-French newspaper in Canada; it was followed by Il Cittadino Canadese with 24,000 copies.

This rapid expansion was succeeded by a further increase in the volume and variety of Italian-language print material in the seventies. Ontario, which contained 65 percent of all Italian Canadians, had the largest number. Over sixty separate publications were founded between the mid-1950s and the early 1980s, almost half of them during the seventies. Notable ventures during the decade included new local newspapers, such as La Gazzetta (The Gazette; Windsor, 1972– ); regional or paese publications directed at subcommunities, such as La Gazzetta della Calabria e della Sicilia (The Gazette of Calabria and Sicily; Toronto, 1970– ); Catholic periodicals, such as Famiglia italiana (Italian Family; Toronto, 1977– ); politically affiliated papers, including the social democratic Forze Nuove (New Forces; Toronto 1972–79); and special interest magazines, such as Donna (Woman; Woodbridge, Ont., 1979– ) aimed at Italian-Canadian women.

Despite the flowering of Italian-language publications in the post-war era, problems arose as the ability of the Canadian-born to read Italian declined. By the late 1970s, the proportion of the second generation in Toronto who could do so was 38 percent, and for the third generation 17 percent. Understandably, there has been a trend among several publications, most notably Il Corriere Canadese, to reach this population by adopting a bilingual format. Hence, while the use of the Italian language has decreased, the survival of an Italian-Canadian press that reflects the unique concerns of the group seems likely.

As with print, radio provided an early source of both cultural continuity and linkage with the new society for the post-war immigrants. And as had been the case with newspapers, Italians concentrated near the American border often received their first exposure to the medium from Italian-American sources. Immigrants in southern Ontario during the early 1950s first heard Italian-language broadcasts via stations in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York. It was not long, however, before Italian Canadians launched their own broadcasts, and some of the major initiatives in both radio and television were undertaken by individuals who had first been involved with newspapers. One of the most successful of these ventures was CHIN radio in Toronto, begun by Johnny Lombardi, a pre-war Italian Canadian who had served in the Canadian army and whose family had first established itself in the grocery trade.

Because of financial considerations and government regulations, stations broadcasting extensively in Italian could be established only in the major markets of Montreal and southern Ontario. In smaller Italian centres across northern and western Ontario, Italian-language broadcasts were produced for existing stations, often through the initiative of local societies such as the Caruso Club of Sudbury or churches such as Holy Rosary parish in Winnipeg. By the mid-1960s of the 200–300 hours per week of third-language airtime in Canada, Italian was first with 90.5 hours, followed by German (47.5 hours) and Ukrainian (28 hours).

Just as radio programming was being consolidated in the 1960s, Italian-language television started to make its first significant inroads within the community. By 1967 Italian television programs were being transmitted in Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Sudbury, and Vancouver. During the 1970s three Toronto stations were broadcasting Italian-language programs, and in 1978 the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) awarded a Toronto channel to the publisher of Il Corriere Canadese for a multilingual station with extensive Italian-language content. The development of cable television facilitated the mounting of community programming in smaller centres across the country. Having commenced with just a few hours of broadcasting per week in the early 1960s, Italian-language television had expanded to approximately 100 hours per week two decades later. In 1984 the CRTC granted a licence to the Telelatino Network to operate a national cable system with up to 50 hours per week of Italian programming (and 40 hours of Spanish), which utilized live satellite transmission from Italian networks. Two years later, passage of the Ethnic Broadcasting Act expanded even further the possibilities for third-language broadcasting.

Given the much higher proportion of Italian Canadians who understand Italian than read it, both radio and television have more fertile ground upon which to cultivate Italian-language material. The “soft media” have largely resisted the transition to bilingual content that has characterized some of the print material. Further, as media that lend themselves to a much more eclectic range in their content than print, radio and television have been able not only to capture a large Italian-Canadian audience but to expand it. Their offering of a wide array of programming, including news, community affairs, religion, sports, drama, and music, both popular and classical, provides the soft media – and increasingly cable television – with an intrinsic attraction that holds great promise of long term cultural maintenance for Italians in Canada.

In the world of culture defined by artistic expression, whether popular or classical, Italian Canadians have made a notable impact. They have done so in terms of both individual contributions to mainstream Canadian culture and the creation of a distinctive Italian-Canadian expression. Among the many who have enriched mainstream culture are Mario Bernardi of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, who was appointed the first conductor of the National Arts Centre orchestra in 1970; Louis and Gino Quilico, both members of the Canadian Opera Company; Guido Molinari of Montreal, whose avant-garde paintings hang in the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Ontario; Bruno Freschi of Trail, British Columbia, who was chief architect for the Vancouver World’s Fair in 1986; Marina Orsini, leading actress in one of Quebec’s most popular television series; and the late Bruno Gerussi, who was born in Medicine Hat, Alberta, and performed as a Shakespearean actor before becoming a widely admired radio and television personality.

Within the Italian-Canadian community, artistic expression can be found in all areas, from sculptors and painters who decorated the local parish churches to regional choirs and dialect poets. The most pervasive form of artistic expression has involved the numerous amateur theatre groups that were formed across Canada and provided the immigrant generation with a form of entertainment which they could both understand and relate to. However, the most lasting and diffuse vehicle by which Italian Canadians have shared their experiences with others has been literature.

Although a number of Italian writers in Canada published minor literary works prior to World War II, Italian-Canadian literature did not come into its own until after the war, especially following the immigrant adjustment phase, when increased education and affluence allowed time for self-reflection. It can be divided into two broad categories: literature in the Italian language written by immigrants whose formation was Italian, and literature written in English or French by younger Italian Canadians who have been socialized in the New World. Of the two, the English-language material has the widest currency in North America and the most potential for reaching future generations.

With respect to the Italian corpus, the first person to publish a major work in Canada was Mario Duliani, a newspaper editor in Montreal whose autobiographical novel, La ville sans femmes (1945), dealt with his experience as an internee at Camp Petawawa during the war. First published in French, the work appeared in Italian a year later and was recently translated into English by poet Antonino Mazza. In the following decades several Italian-language literary works were published, especially during the renaissance years of the 1970s and 1980s. The novels of Maria Ardizzi and the poetry of journalist Gianni Grohovaz have garnered considerable recognition. For the most part, this literature was written from an Italian perspective that looked inward at the Italian-Canadian immigrant experience.

The voice of the Italian-Canadian generation, whether in English or French, was not really heard until the late 1970s. Two books produced a wave of recognition among the younger generation and helped to launch Italian-Canadian literature as an identifiable entity. Pier Giorgio Di Cicco’s Roman Candles (1978), an anthology of the work of seventeen poets, and Frank Paci’s novel The Italians (1978), the first of a quartet, did much to bring attention to the literary ferment occurring within Italian-Canadian circles. This activity was given further definition with the publication of Italian Canadian Voices: An Anthology of Poetry and Prose (1984), edited by Caroline Morgan Di Giovanni. Joseph Pivato firmly established Italian-Canadian literature as a corpus worthy of serious study with the collection Contrasts: Essays on Italian-Canadian Writing (1985). Parallel development took place in French-language literature. The publication of two anthologies did much to heighten awareness of this work. The bilingual La poesia italiana nel Quebec (Italian Poetry in Quebec, 1983), edited by Tonino Caticchio, brought together twenty-six francophone writers, and Quêtes: textes d’auteurs italoquébécois (1983), compiled by Antonio D’Alfonso and Fulvio Caccia, presented the work of eighteen poets, dramatists, and other authors to the wider public.

Of the various literary forms, Italian-Canadian writers have been most active in the field of poetry. Authors such as Di Cicco, Mary Di Michele, Len Gasparini, and Mary Melfi have each produced several volumes of poetry, and the first two have been included in major anthologies of Canadian verse. Among novelists, the experience of women, a major theme in Italian-Canadian writing, has been explored by Caterina Edwards of Edmonton. A significant advance in bringing the Italian-Canadian perspective to national attention occurred with the publication of Nino Ricci’s Lives of the Saints (1991), the first of a trilogy, which won the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

In French-speaking Quebec the writings of Caccia and Filippo Salvatore have gained recognition, as have the plays of Marco Micone. Paul Tana has made Montreal the centre of Italian-Canadian screen writing and film-making. Alexandre Amprimoz is one of Canada’s truly bilingual French-English writers, as well as a scholar of Canadian literature. The world of theatre has also recently been opened up by young Italian-Canadian playwrights, particularly Tony Nardi of Toronto and Vittorio Rossi of Montreal, the latter of whose plays have been staged in New York City.

In the 1980s two developments served to link Italian-Canadian writers across Canada and provide forums for collective discussion. The first was the founding of an articulate, trilingual magazine, Vice Versa (Montreal, 1983–97), by Italian Canadians, which did much to advance artistic and social debate around a multicultural perspective. Secondly, the establishment in 1986 of the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers provided individuals with an ongoing structure for communication through biennial conferences and the publication of a regular newsletter. Italian-Canadian literature in all its facets is complex, each writer bringing his or her individual contribution to the corpus. However, several general themes emerge from this creative effort: intergenerational conflict and change, the return to Italy and self-exploration, the duality of the immigrant or ethnic experience, and the search for synthesis. It is through this ongoing process that the writer in fact contributes to the creation of a distinctive Italian-Canadian identity and cultural expression.