Written by Nadia Masi
The following is a project featuring an interview with an Italian immigrant to Canada, Antonio Masi, in an effort to preserve an Italian Canadian immigration story from the 1960s.
Table of Contents
On September 29th, 2022, in Guelph, Ontario, I was provided with the privilege to conduct a semi-structural interview with an Italian immigrant to Canada, my father, Antonio Masi. The methods used include asking eleven pre-determined questions and eight interspersed follow-up questions, and video recording the interview to ensure the story could be accessed verbatim, upon permission from Antonio. The purpose of the interview was to create an oral history and document a personal archive by recording Antonio’s first-hand experience of immigration: leaving Italy, the travel journey, and entering and adapting to life in Canada as an Italian immigrant. In choosing my father, this interview process has furthermore allowed me the privilege of learning about my own Italian heritage and family history, and analyzing, interpreting, and reflecting on this interview has allowed me to appreciate it in the wider historical context of immigration and the Italian Canadian community.
With his two older sisters, younger brother, and his mother and father, nine-year-old Antonio boarded the Olympia ship in Naples, only to arrive in Halifax eight days later, take a two-day train ride, and finally a 100-mile-long car ride from his uncle to the small town of Red Lake in Northern Ontario where he and his family settled on March 27th, 1967. As the interview continued, Antonio shared many notable aspects of his experience, from his first encounters with Canadian culture like showers and sliced white bread and the multiculturalism of Red Lake, to the methods that Antonio and his family used to adapt to their new environment and his steadfast appreciation for his Italian heritage that he wishes to share with his descendants.
The video recording of the interview can be accessed below.
Summary of Interview
Below is a summary of the interview in chart form for quick access to Antonio’s responses.
During the interview, Antonio Masi shared many aspects about his immigration experience that relate to other primary sources and topics discussed in HUMN*3800. Most notable is the fact that Antonio and his family immigrated to Canada for economic opportunity and a “better life” from a poor agrarian area, which is a common factor in the history of Italian immigration to North America (Harney 5). Next, is Antonio’s childhood experiences with discrimination, as he was mocked by children who called him “Tony bologna”, with the difficulty of not knowing English, and with the cold temperatures of Canada, to which Antonio’s father would have had to adapt his garden practices. Even as early as the 17th century, Italians arriving in Canada, like Father Bressani, have remarked its unexpectedly frigid climate, and in the 19th century and the 20th century, the Italians of these eras of mass migration consistently faced the effects of the language barrier and mistreatment because of their ethnicity. (Bressani 21-22; Salvatore 168; Russo) An additional connection is to the discussion of what scholar Harney and other accounts might consider ‘dirty’ jobs, manual labour like mining that Antonio’s father worked, that the native Canadian population may not have wanted to do but that Italian and other immigrants worked as a means of survival (Harney 3; 14-15; Salvatore 169; Russo). As part of the wave of immigration when the “enemy status” of Italians was revoked, therefore simultaneously contributing to the Canadian post-war economic boom, Antonio and his family furthermore applied these skills they had from their homeland in adapting to life in Canada as Harney mentions Italian immigrants tended to do, like Antonio’s mother working in a bakery in Canada after having been a homemaker in Italy (Russo; Harney 5-7).
Interestingly, a topic discussed in class from which Antonio’s story differs is Italian heritage and success in Canada. At first, what Harney describes as “ethnic self dis-esteem” could be interpreted from Antonio’s story (Harney 3). That is, the idea that practical, small-scale contributions made by everyday Italians to North American society are neglected by both Italians and non-Italians and overshadowed by talk of the grand accomplishments of Italian explorers and famous artists out of shame for the negative stereotyping of ‘regular’, particularly Southern, Italians considered less ‘respectable’ in performing manual labour (Harney 3-4;14-15). Antonio says that he was the first in his family to graduate high school and college and how he was proud of these accomplishments which “honoured” his parents. Just as was discussed in class, Italian parents have often encouraged their children to become more educated for a ‘better life’ instead of following in their footsteps of working manual labour jobs that were considered less respectable and “boorish” overall (Russo; Harney 4). Professor Teresa Russo explains the importance of these skills then and now which allowed immigrants to shift from poverty to middle class (Russo). Though, parents, who emigrated to North America, she explains, wanted their children educated to work office jobs and enter professional fields so their children did not have to work in mines and factories. Antonio’s personal attitude towards success and his Italian heritage comes off as not one of shame, but of respect. While acknowledging the lack of “glamour” in the jobs, he nonetheless speaks fondly of the hardships that he and his family endured and overcame in taking these ‘dirty’ jobs to survive. He further explicitly states that he is proud of his humble Italian heritage, which is emphasized by his answer to the question regarding items of importance brought from Italy to Canada in which he talks about bringing everyday working tools and kitchen utensils, and by his expressed desire to share his family’s hardships and work ethic with his children.
Having had no previous experience conducting interviews, this project has allowed me to explore, learn, and apply interviewing techniques first-hand which I intend to employ going forward in my academic and professional career. Some techniques I used include nodding along, adding small interjections like “mm-hmmm” to convey my attentiveness, understanding, and openness to listening to the interviewee, and the learned technique to encourage sharing by including pauses, which permitted the interviewee an opportunity to ponder their responses and add further details. Furthermore, this experience has revealed the caliber of my technological ability to create videos, a particular skillset that I would like to refine, and my lack of confidence in asking follow-up questions in line with my goal, like asking about how Antonio overcame the language barrier, which could have been valuable to the Italian Canadian immigration history database. In terms of my expectations of the project, I had anticipated dramatic stories, but I was pleasantly humbled by the simplicity in the stories and details that Antonio provided in sharing his experience, like his first experience trying sliced white bread in Canada. Contrarily, Antonio fulfilled my expectation that he would mention both the positive and the negative aspects of life in Italy and Canada and of his immigration journey, as he was very open to discussing any topic.
Simultaneously, this project has also allowed me to learn how to balance being empathetic with the interviewee and my task to create a primary source in conducting hands-on research. Contrary to performing experiments in a lab, for example, I had to ensure I was considering the person who was the face of my research, rather than simply collecting and retaining information. I have learned how to handle potentially delicate information in the way that I conducted myself and the interview in an appropriate manner. I was reminded of the importance of being sensitive when connecting with an ethnic member of the community and learning about their lived experiences. Furthermore, by putting one more face to the vast history of Italian immigration to Canada, I think that this project and my interpretations of it will help to promote the preciousness of each lived experience and the importance of personal stories to help showcase how Italians immigrants are a part of Canadian history. It will add to Italian scholarship and promote Italian immigration studies, while affirming to Italian Canadians that they were not alone in their immigration struggles. Antonio’s story could offer a new perspective of Italian immigration to Canada by being a story based in rural Canada where there was ethnic diversity but not necessarily ethnically division into communities, like Little Italy and Little Japan in the city of Toronto. Overall, I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of this project and its impact in the Italian Canadian society, and hope to do possible future projects, like conducting interviews with Antonio’s siblings who were at different stages in their lives upon arrival to Canada.
All photographs included have been approved for sharing from the private collections of Antonio Masi and Maria Masi.
Bressani, Francesco Guiseppe. “Promeo.” The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing, edited by Joseph Pivato. Guernica Editions Inc., 1998, pp. 22-26.
Harney, Robert F. “Italian Immigration and the Frontiers of Western Civilization.” The Italian Immigration Experience, 1988, pp. 1-24.
Masi, Nadia. “HUMN*3800 and the Italian Heritage Project: Interview of Antonio M.” YouTube, 6 October 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SlvUlWKaJk ; access at Italian Communities in Canada: Heritage, Cultural, and Ethnographic Studies as of November 2022.
Russo, Teresa. “Lecture and Discussion on Italian Canadian Immigration II and Stereotypes.” HUMN*3800 Italian Heritage and Digital Applications, 19 September 2022, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario. Lecture.
Salvatore, Filippo. “Poems for Giovanni Caboto.” The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing, edited by Joseph Pivato. Guernica Editions Inc., 1998, pp. 165-170.
How to cite this page:
MLA STYLE: Author. “Title.” Title of container, Other contributors, Number (vol. and/or no.), Publisher, Publication Date, Location (pages, paragraphs and/or URL, DOI or permalink). 2nd container’s title, Other contributors.
Masi, Nadia. “From Italy to Canada: The Preserved Immigration Story of Antonio Masi.” In Italian Communities in Canada: Heritage, Cultural and Ethnographic Studies, suprv. Teresa Russo. University of Guelph, 28 November 2022, Guelph (https://www.italianheritage.ca/2022/11/28/from-italy-to-canada-the-preserved-immigration-story-of-antonio-masi/). Italian-Canadian Narratives Showcase (ICNS), Sandra Parmegiani, Kyra Bates, and Gurpreet Kaur.