Written by Griffin Williamson
This piece covers two interviews which were conducted with siblings: Giovanna Williamson and Sergio Conte. Both shed light on the same time periods from their lives, leaving Italy and immigrating to Canada in the mid 1950’s.
Table of Contents
Sergio and Giovanna are my great uncle and grandmother or nonna respectively they came to Canada at the ages of 7 and 9 and quickly began their life in Sudbury after taking a train from Halifax. I have known them both very well my whole life but only ever for the people that they were, never really knowing where they had come from or who they had been. Conducting these interviews and creating this project has been very enlightening to me and I hope it will have the same effect on you. Uncovering family history is not something you get to do everyday. As the world seems to continue getting busier it was therapeutic to take a step back and listen to the stories of my family members.
Interview 1 Sergio
For me this project was a perfect opportunity to explore some of my family history that I had not dug into before. Growing up I was always close to my grandmother and great uncle. Them being the youngest two siblings of an immigrant family naturally created an opportunity to hear a very similar story through the lens of two individuals of different gender. This unique opportunity allowed me to compare their stories to help draw some conclusions about how life would differ for immigrant women and immigrant men. Of course, it is my hope that these interviews bring an understanding to the lives of Italian immigrants. Additionally, that they share themes with the lives of other immigrants not fortunate enough to have their stories recorded. Collecting the history from the mouths of the people who lived it will allow me to keep a personal record of my ancestors as well as contribute to a larger database of Italian immigrant stories. To start, I will cover my great uncle Sergio’s interview. It was conducted on the 25th of November, 2022 in Allenford, ON.
Transcription of Sergio’s Interview
Griffin: The interview is being conducted on the 25th of November 2022 in Allenford Ontario and if you could start with your name and your age that’d be great.
Sergio: yeah yeah my name is Sergio Conte and I’m uh 76 years old and my birth date is on uh July the 12th 1946
Q1: Where were you born?
A1: In the in the town, I think it would be a town in those days uh uh Castello di Godego in the province of Treviso.
Q2: What first brought you to Canada
A2: My mother who was uh being brought to Canada by my father. So our whole family came here because of my father.
Q3: Were you already uh acquainted with anyone in Canada before you arrived was there any family that landed here before you came?
A3: Just my father okay yeah uh because he arrived here two years he came to Canada two years before uh bringing us over in order to make money to bring us over as far as I know.
Q4: Do you remember where you first arrived and when?
A4: When is uh well it’s got, I can only say uh the year, I think it was in May of 1954 and in Halifax we landed in Halifax.
Q5: So, did you come by boat?
Q6: And who came with you on the boat?
A6: uh on the boat it was my mother primarily as yeah, my mother my oldest brother Frank my second oldest brother Garino my sister and myself.
Q7: Do you know how old you were?
A7: Yeah, I was just uh seven years old going on uh on eight because like I said we arrived in approximately May of that year and then of course I was gonna celebrate my birthday in July.
Q8: Do you remember the part of Italy that you left like if you left from a specific port?
A8: right well I remember the community more or less, from my recollection of the community and the uh the farm that we were raised or Born and Raised on.
Q9: Do you remember what your first impression of Canada was?
A9: I was clueless I was, I just came to you know, in my first impression well I don’t I don’t remember landing or getting off the boat you know I remember oh yeah I remember we were at I think you mentioned we were stopped at Pier One Pauline? and uh I remember the Customs people going through our luggage and I think they I don’t know if they confiscated salamis or what the heck it was that we had in there I think there was food in there I’m not sure but I remember them doing that because a lot of immigrants that were there their luggage were being processed by uh custom officials.
Q10: Did you think anything of the land was it significantly different from anything that you’d seen in Italy? I guess it wasn’t cold if it was in May?
A10: That’s right it wasn’t cold and uh from what I saw there was very. I we went from one building to another building to uh getting on a member I think it was uh I’m pretty sure it was a a railroad car. And after that I don’t remember a thing.
Q11: Along for the ride?
A11: I’m going for the ride exactly just just like you know when we came, we got on the. When we were being processed in Italy to come over here you know to get our shots or I think we got uh uh polio polio shots or vaccine or and then vaccine the smallpox vaccination what do you call that thing they scratch you on your arm that that vaccination anyway yeah I remember getting that done I think we had to go to to Rome to get that done. I remember going on I was on a special trip and then coming back again and yeah so anyways um that’s basically what I remembered.
Q12: Did you bring any items of importance with you when you came to Canada?
Q13: Not so much as a seven-year-old?
A13: No I no I didn’t bring a toy I didn’t bring I didn’t I didn’t have toys I I didn’t bring nothing.
Q14: Did your mother or father maybe bring over some family heirlooms or photographs with them?
A14: I think maybe my mother might have had it might have but I don’t recall that that she did or not. You know some stuff that she collected in the old country to bring here to make a home I don’t recall.
Q15: Did you did you encounter any obstacles do you think? Like language barrier related or not fitting in with other kids?
A15: I suppose at the time oh well um I I thought about that uh as far as I remember me as a as a child of that age I I had really good experience because language, there was no language barrier. There are a lot of kids mind you I never I don’t remember speaking Italian to other children that were in the similar situation that I was and there was a lot of them. But even the kids that were born in uh in Canada that were Italian descent there was no problem there because as a child you know hey who wants to play uh the hide and go seek who wants to play uh baseball who wants to play uh Cowboys and Indians I was always the Indian I think so there you go. No I had no barriers. Though, I remember people calling uh or saying DP but I didn’t know what that meant until years later. Displaced person that’s it.
Q16: Does it bother you now?
A16: No not at all not at all no no no no not at all it doesn’t but I have no negative feelings about them but uh I mean not everybody, there was maybe the odd person that said that that’s all. okay or the odd child I never heard of an adult because I don’t, never had any dealings with adults except my parents.
Q17: But you figure for the most part whether it was broken English or broken Italian all the kids’ kind of knew what they were saying?
A17: Absolutely absolutely oh yeah you know what the first word I I remember and learning no actually the first two words, “shut up”, I remember that.
Q18: Were you talking a lot?
A18:no no no no I don’t remember talking very much no.
Q19: So was that directed at you that caused you to learn it? or directed at your siblings?
A19: oh no I actually directed at me no I besides I think uh if there was a there was a certain age groups that hung around together. I hung around kids my own age and my brothers hung around kids their own age and and so on. Now my sister there’s a different story I think she was under control of my mother all the time so I don’t know she did, she wasn’t, I don’t think she was much of a, she wasn’t able to do the things that we were able to do we were out and about I think my mother wanted to keep her to be like a more domestic domesticated. We were basically let, we were out there, we were almost wild, basically.
Q20: So the boys were free range and the girl was inside?
A20: Exactly, which was hard on my sister.
Q21: Did you exchange any letters with relatives that you had in Italy?
A21: No, no I was barely literate it’s true that’s true. I don’t, I learned, I remember going to school in the old country. I remember learning how to write not not print either what do you call that uh cursive or cursive that’s it yes that’s what they taught us cursive writing.
Q22: So where do you consider home for you now and why?
A22: uh a country?
Q22(explained): A country, person, specific location.
A22: Yep uh Canada became my home uh as far as I’m concerned uh right from the word “get-go” as far as I just uh as I assimilated uh you know. Growing up with other kids that were, that were here, that were born here, so that’s it. It was my home I never thought about the old country at all after we left it.
Q23: Do you think not really having any relatives left in Italy that you wanted to keep in contact with helped you to accept Canada as your new home?
A23: no no no I didn’t yeah no. My parents and uh well my parents had more of a need to to be kept in contact because my mother my uh my parent Grandparents were there still alive and uh and also my father’s siblings were still there the ones that were left at the farm. So, he had a need maybe to keep in contact with them and same with my mother she had her mother and father still alive, but I think at the time when we moved away, and brothers too. But my personally no, I never had any of that.
Q24: So just looking back on your experience from leaving Italy and then growing up in Canada is there anything you would have done differently?
A24: I had no choice but to come here with my parents so uh to to do something different I had no choice in that.
Q25: Are you happy with the way that your life went in Canada?
A25: Oh absolutely I was uh I I what do you always say uh what’s the expression I fell uh I fell out of I was in a pot of boiling water and fell into a bed of roses you know what I mean? So, I had, I’ve had a really charmed life I think personally. Lucky, am I right?
Q26: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
A26: Hmm oh well I had a coming over here as a child I have to say that um I had a really good time. First of all getting on the boat, running around nilly willy you know, with nobody to hold me back and actually I almost cracked my head on on the ships uh what do you call it uh uh a spare anchor that was mounted on the on the on the upper on the on the upper part of the of the ship from the deck up. Because we were running, oh anyway. I just I was sitting there and I got up bang oh anyways. See, something like that I remember really vividly. Then running around and going up to the where the uh operated the ship to you know and the people there on the ship or operating the ship never said boo to us. So anyways, yeah I had a good time and same with uh when we arrived in Canada what do you call it in Sudbury getting off the train we were met there by my father’s cousin, first cousin and he he had a car. Which I’ve never been in one before. To me it was wonderful it was a wonderful experience and then kept on going that way. I was in school and oh yeah and then oh yeah school going to school was something else as an immigrant child because we were had to learn how to uh to tell them between all different coins that were at the penny the nickel the quarter and so on so we had to uh they had they made us uh what do you call put the coin underneath a piece of paper and rub it with a pencil so that it would be an impression on there and then you’d cut it out and you’d say then you’d have to learn how to make the change and stuff like that. And of course, learning how to speak it. I don’t know how I ever learned to speak English, but I eventually did.
Q27: Do you think it took you a long time to learn how to speak English?
A27: No not at all.
Q28: You got fluent relatively fast?
A28: Well fluent is not uh, isn’t the word I would describe to what you call it to uh, to the way I learned English uh you know or the way I know English but um no. It took me uh I it took me a relatively short period of time as that, where I could, was able to communicate easily with my peers.
Q29: Is that everything?
A29: I think so
Interview 2 Giovanna Williamson
For this assignment I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview my grandmother, she is the only biological grandmother I have ever known and was a significant part of my life growing up. I was unsure whether or not she would feel up to the task of being interviewed but thankfully she was willing and happy to participate. We have talked before about her life and family growing up but the opportunity to dig a little deeper and know more about my loving grandmother was something I felt would benefit the whole family. Being able to document some of my family’s more interesting stories for future generations was certainly a goal of mine. Contributing to a larger database of stories from Italian Canadians brings me a sense of pride that I am able to share the story of this wonderful woman with more people. By conducting an oral interview and searching through family heirlooms and pictures I am able to preserve her story not only for myself and my family but hopefully for anyone interested in the stories of Italian immigrants. This interview was conducted on October 3rd, 2022 in Goderich, Ontario.
Transcription of Giovanna’s Interview
What age group/generation are you in?
Born in 1944, “silent generation”
Where were you born?
Castello Di Godego
What brought you to Canada? Was it because your parents were moving here?
Yes, that’s right.
Did you have family here [in Canada] before your parents came, or were they first?
Yes, [they were the first].
Where did you first arrive when you came to Canada? So, you came by boat then?
We went from Castello Di Godego to Halifax. *nod* [by boat].
Who did you come with on the boat? Were any of your siblings or your father there with you? Just you and your mother?
My mother. Nope. Me [and my mother], yup.
How old were you at that time?
I was 9, almost 10, not quite.
What was the journey like; how was the boat ride, or how was the travel to get to the boat? Do you remember being sea sick, or was it a smooth sail?
*thumbs up* Good. Nope [not sea sick], mhm [pretty smooth sail].
Do you remember what your first impression of Canada was? Did it seem like a drastic change from Italy? Were you surprised by the architecture or the land? Was it cold?
Oh, God no! *nod* uhuh [it was cold]
Did you find any obstacles trying to fit in in Canada? Was it hard to communicate with people? Do you think most Canadians were capable of understanding you or your Mom? Could you speak English okay?
No. My mom, no [they couldn’t understand her]. Yep [I could speak English okay].
Did you bring any heirlooms or family photographs from Italy to Canada when you came here? Do you happen to have any of those around right now?
Yeah. No, I don’t think so, but then again… who knows.
Did you encounter any obstacles or difficulties trying to give birth in Canada? Was it a generally good experience? Do you feel like it would have been different if you gave birth in Italy?
No. [obstacles or difficulties] Yeah.
No, I don’t think so.
When you came here, did you have any relatives that stayed in Italy? Did you exchange letters with them? Did you keep contact with them in any fashion?
Yes. I don’t know, no. No.
Where do you consider home, for you?
*points to her husband beside her*
Is there anything you would have done differently?
*shakes head no*
Do you feel like giving birth to a son and a daughter in Canada made you feel more tied to Canadian Culture?
*nods yes* mhm.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
No. *thumbs up*
My uncle Sergio states many times that he has enjoyed his life in Canada and that he has thought of it as home for as long and he can remember. He speaks fondly of his childhood and his adult life in Canada. Despite briefly touching on the topic of discrimination and racism he was able to make it clear that it never bothered him or warped his opinion of the country. He did however make a point of explaining that his sister Giovanna was kept more sheltered when they moved to Canada and was not afforded the same privileges as him and his older brothers. This of course, could understandably cause his opinion and view of moving to Canada to be vastly different than that of his sister’s. Sergio did however, state that his family settled in Sudbury. Which, being a mining town was a common location for Italian immigrants. This is likely to have made it easier for him to find his way in Canada. Many of his neighbors were also Italian immigrants and he even described it as moving from Italy to little Italy. Overall, I believe Sergio’s story is an honest account of the struggles of being an immigrant child in Canada. Though, he certainly does not let those challenges define him as a person or impede him from seeing the beauty in Canada. Having described coming here as “landing in a bed of roses” I believe it is clear his opinion of Canada is highly positive.
“I was in a pot of boiling water and fell into a bed of roses…”Sergio Conte
It is interesting to reflect upon the stories of your elders, in some ways it will shed light on knowledge they have passed on to you. In other ways it will change the way you view them. Prior to this interview with Sergio I viewed my grandmother in a very one-dimensional way. She was loving, caring, and warm but I had never really stopped to consider why. Aren’t all grandmothers like this? While Sergio tells a tale of freedom and exploration and navigating a new world. He is clear to state that my grandmother did not take part in discovering Canadian culture the way he did. Sergio said that while him and his brothers were free to play after dinner Giovanna was kept in the kitchen to clean up and do chores. This certainly would change her perception of Canada, never having the freedom to discover it on her own. I believe this is why when asked what home was for her, she simply pointed to my grandfather. He was her exploration, and he was her freedom. So, while Sergio fell in love with Canada and the life it could offer him Giovanna fell in love with my grandfather and the family he could offer her.
This project offered me a new way to view my family and a renewed understanding of my heritage. Initially I believed it would be a simple recording of history though it changed into something much more. I was able to reflect on what I already knew about my relatives and form a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Italian immigrant. Gender differences have a way of influencing opinions and experiences in today’s world, but it was even more prominent during the early lives of Sergio and Giovanna. Sergio’s interview has helped me to see this gender difference in a more prevalent way. While before I would have just considered them both Italian immigrants, I think now it is clear that being immigrants is likely the only experience they share. I am grateful to have been able to capture this story from two different sides. I think it helps to validate the struggles of both immigrant men and immigrant women and I hope it is a part of history we can hold on to in my family and as a nation.
All photographs included have been approved for sharing from the private collection of Sergio Conte.
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.
MLA STYLE: Griffin Williamson “An Immigration Story From Two Perspectives”, In Italian Communities in Canada: Heritage, Cultural and Ethnographic Studies, suprv. Teresa Russo. University of Guelph: December 2, 2022, Guelph, ON (https://www.italianheritage.ca/?p=3503&preview=true). Italian-Canadian Narratives Showcase (ICNS), Sandra Parmegiani and Kyra Bates.