50 Years of Italian Immigration to Canada-
Comparing and Contrasting the Experiences of Two Generations of Italian Canadian Immigration, Accommodation, and Integration
Table of Contents
The Goal of my Interviews and Methods Employed
The purpose of this assignment is to get a better understanding of the various types of experiences Italian Canadians have had while immigrating to Canada. To gain insight into this experience, I have chosen to interview my nonna (grandmother) and nonno (grandfather), Maria and Alberto Mancuso, as well as Aurora Cominetti, my friend and instructor at the University of Guelph. I had various reasons for choosing these three people as my interviewees, aside from an ease of access and the chance to comfortably practice my Italian.
My nonna and nonno are prime examples of the largest group of Italians to immigrate to Canada: those that came during the third wave between the 50s and 60s. As they are part of this period of Italian immigration to Canada, I believed that, though of course each immigration experience is its own, unique process, their arrival during the peak of Italian immigration to Canada would allow me more insight into the difficulties Italians faced arriving in Canada at this time. In fact, they themselves shared so many similarities in their journey, reasons for immigration to Canada, and life here (before meeting) that I was both surprised, yet satisfied with the fact that, their stories are very much in-line with what we have been learning in class. Aside from interviewing them for insight into the average Italian Canadian immigration experience, I also hoped to have a record of their life preserved via video for future reference, a suggestion made to me by Aurora when I had first approached her to be interviewed. With that in mind, I also learned more about my own history, as well as the childhood of my father, information that I found greatly comforting to learn and, at times, quite shocking.
I thought Aurora would be interesting to interview because of her extremely different experience immigrating to Canada. While I didn’t know everything at the time, the interview we conducted gave me more insight on her life (which was very cool to learn about!), and how the circumstances that brought her to Canada were extremely different from those of my nonni. The 50+ year gap that separates their journeys had indicated to me that there would be substantial differences, and my knowledge of all three parties reinforced this fact, but by gathering more information from Aurora, I hoped to learn what had changed over that time. Her role at the university as an instructor is inherently indicative of this difference (if the time gap wasn’t enough to indicate such changes), as it demonstrates her having attended and received a post-secondary education, an opportunity my grandparents did not have before settling in Canada. Moreover, I thought, as we have heard many stories of the Italians that immigrated during the third wave, the story of a millennial who has recently settled in Canada would add a fresh perspective to the stories of new(er) Italian immigrants and changes in immigration.
When I finished conducting the interviews, I was extremely satisfied with the information I had learned, ecstatic to have had the opportunity to hear the immigration stories of three people who have had a great impact on my life, and thrilled at the possibility of further dissecting the different immigration experiences of the Italians who immigrated to Canada in the 1960s, and those who continue to come to Canada today.
Video Interviews with Alberto Mancuso, Maria Mancuso, and Aurora Cominetti
The following interviews were conducted in Italian between the participants and myself. All interviews were conducted at my apartment complex in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, over the span of a week. A translated and paraphrased version of the interview can be found in the table below, with written responses to each question, as well as some fascinating observations I learned through conducting the interviews that weren’t previously written down as questions. You can also find certain segments broken down by question number and response after the table, should you wish to learn more about certain segments of their lives.
The Goal of my Interviews and Methods Employed
The interview I conducted with my nonna and nonno revealed just how hard a lot of their journey to Canada was, and allowed me insight into our family history, of which I had no prior knowledge of. I was well aware of the many brothers and sisters my nonno had, but I didn’t realize that it was because his sister and brother had paid for his boat ticket that he was able to make his way to Canada. Admittedly, I’m not even sure if any of them are still alive, whether in Canada or abroad. I find it especially interesting because we’ve had very little contact with my extended family in recent years. From what I gathered by interviewing him, it seems he was once quite close with them, but no longer. Their contemporary distancing felt reflected in the way he related their paying his ticket; he seems to have contempt over the fact that he had to pay them back for their investment in bringing them over, a topic I may like to dive into further, though perhaps not in the context of this assignment. My nonna, similarly, relied on the help of her family (in this case, her sister) to make the voyage from Italy to Canada.
Their stories are, in many ways, similar to those of other Italian-Canadians that we hear about in media or literature and is evocative especially of the articles we read concerning the working conditions for Italian Canadians. The journey my nonni took saw them arrive by boat to Halifax and travel by train to Toronto; they found themselves in industries that were heavily populated with uneducated immigrants like them; the communities they lived in were populated with other Italian immigrants. I’ve always found the last point to be sort of a double-edged sword, as surrounding yourself with a community of ethnically similar people does provide a certain level of comfort and community that can ease someone into the process of integration, however, it can just as easily inhibit the process of integration by creating an insular community within the larger community framework. That my nonna worked continuously at the potato chip factory from the moment she first arrived surprised me, as I believed she had stopped when my father was born. My nonno starting a pizza business, a dry cleaner, buying a house, and paying for my father’s education is a heartening, successful story of immigration. He said that he came to Canada to make a better life, which, by most metrics, it seems that he did.
Perhaps what I found most interesting, from both their stories, was my father’s response to them. When asked to comment on some of the events they recounted about their life in Canada, he remembered certain elements differently. This isn’t to say that either my nonni, or my father, were lying, but rather, an interesting comment on the subjectivity of the human experience and memory. Both versions of events are equally true for both parties (in this case, my nonni, and my father), and if I had more time, perhaps I would have spent it interviewing my father to have him recount his experiences as the child of Italian immigrants.
Comparing and contrasting the stories behind my nonni’s journey and that of Aurora’s has been an interesting process, especially when considering the 50-year difference that separates both parties’ arrivals to Canada. Unlike my nonni, Aurora was a highly educated woman before she came here (having come to further her education) and had many opportunities that Italian immigrants historically did not have here in Canada. Her education included an almost natural command of the English language, and even familiarity with French, which made integration in Canada even easier. Similarly, it seems her previous experiences studying abroad in England had prepared her for any feelings of anxiety, stress, or loneliness that may arise from being away from family and friends. Her history, journey to Canada, and subsequent “accidental immigration”, as it were, reminds me of the idea of the intelligentsia that Italian Americans and Canadians like to associate with their roots (in an effort to distance themselves from the more criminal or unscrupulous elements of their heritage that have characterized large parts of the media in both countries).
What I found most interesting about my interview with Aurora were her responses to the questions about where home is for her, and her overall immigration story. Aurora, having traveled extensively and lived abroad for a long period of time in multiple countries, has a very metropolitan view of what she considers home, specifically saying that for her, it is in multiple countries. She has created, as she calls them, “little houses” in Canada, the UK, and Italy, which she feels attached to and thinks about constantly, especially when she is away from one of them. Moreover, her immigration journey as one of incident rather than full-blown choice is fascinating; I suppose one never really knows where they’ll end up, especially if they’re habituated to traveling, until an opportunity presents itself. In many ways, Aurora’s journey to Canada was paved for by way of the Italian immigrants that came before her, a fact reflected in her current role within the university, and the opportunity Erasmus Mundus granted her. Due to our large Italian diasporic population, the interest for Italian language and history courses was created, courses that, naturally, would, could, and should be taught by Italians or their descendants. Had the masses of Italian immigrants like my nonni never came to Canada, who is to say the Erasmus Mundus partnership with the University of Guelph would even exist?
Overall, I found these interviews to be extremely helpful in contextualizing Italian immigration to Canada, especially over an extended period (in this case, a difference of roughly 50 years). While my original intention was to only interview Aurora, I’m glad she convinced me to interview my nonni as well, as it gave me greater insight into the different journey’s undertaken by Italian immigrants, the different motivations that brought them to Canada, and even insight into my own family history.
From top left to bottom right: Roberto Mancuso cutting a birthday cake at their home in Malton; Family photo from the personal archives of Alberto (top row, fifth from left) and Maria (middle row, third from left) Mancuso, featuring friends and family. Son Roberto Mancuso is featured as well, top row, second from left; Maria and Roberto Mancuso at the beach; Alberto and Maria enjoying some time together; Maria and cat Suzie cutting some cake; A photo of Maria’s German grandparents, given to her by her brother; A photo of Maria’s mother before losing her during the war; Maria’s brother and sister-in-law from back in Italy; Alberto Mancuso during his mandatory military service standing on a tank with friends; Alberto Mancuso holding his son Roberto; Alberto standing with his brother in the background, while his nephew stands in the foreground; Alberto in his uniform during basic training back in Italy; Alberto’s military portrait during basic training; Alberto and son Roberto visiting family and the Coliseum upon their return to Rome, Italy; A photo of the family cat, Suzie, as she jumps down from the fence of their home in Malton, Ontario. All photos were taken (with permission) from the private catalogue of Alberto and Maria Mancuso.
What I Learned and Gained from this Experience
The experience was very fun, especially as I had some more private time with some very important people in my life. As we began the interviews, I was initially quite nervous, but as they progressed, I felt more capable of asking follow-up questions, was happy to apply my own experiences to the ones they described as a comparison and felt comfortable joking around with my interviewees. Personally, I think taking account of their experiences for future use can help us understand the immigration from new perspectives, and, especially in Aurora’s case, what has improved in years following the largest wave of Italian immigration to Canada. Though much of what my nonni experienced is identical or very similar to the content we have studied (especially in relation to poor working conditions), Aurora’s perspective is much more unique, as it shows us what educated, millennial Italians are intrigued by when deciding to come to Canada. All things considered, my overall reaction was that this was a very fun experience, one that offered me the chance to get more in touch with my roots and learn about the difficulties of immigration.
As far as personal growth and development are concerned, I think I elaborated on this above, but to reiterate, it was nice to have a chance to learn more about my family history, specifically the parts that relate to my nonni when they were in Italy. In a sense, it did also bring us closer, but, given that I’ve lived with or near them for almost 26 years, I think our relationship was very strong to begin with. It did, however, give me a greater appreciation of the struggles they faced as new immigrants to Canada, something I may not have appreciated as much otherwise. I also do think it is important to repeat that the (his)stories they recounted in their interview were accurate as far as they were concerned, but not necessarily the full picture (when I consider my father’s words on the subject). For me, it simply reinforced the pre-existing notions of truth and memory I had, as each person’s version of a story can be perceived as the true experience by the one saying it, whether all the facts are accounted for.
From a professional perspective, I was able to develop better techniques for interviewing as the interview progressed and feel as though I went through the follow-up questions I had naturally. Though I had difficulty at times expressing myself in Italian (my vocabulary can be quite limited at times), I was able to use a mixture of Italian and English (as needed) to get my point across. Evidently, the fact that I had a long-standing relationship with the people I interviewed certainly made things easier, not only in bridging the language gap, but also in encouraging me to ask the follow-up questions, however, it became easier and easier as each interview went on. This is particularly evident with Aurora, as the interview I conducted with her was second to the one conducted with my nonni. As the interviews progressed and I bettered my abilities to ask follow-up questions, I also chose to focus on what I found interesting in each interview. I was worried, to an extent, that they may not want to answer these questions, as they were not pre-approved prior to starting the interview, but I was also very careful and deliberate in the questions I chose to ask them.
In terms of how the interviews went, the one I conducted with my nonni went much longer than I had anticipated. I was happy to let them continue talking, even when we veered off topic, or jumped ahead in their immigration journey, as I found it interesting to hear their stories. Moreover, I am not sure how much time we have left together, and it was nice to hear more about their lives than what they had shared before. I of course knew about my nonno’s army experience, his large family, his travels in Italy, but very little of the home life he created with my nonna, nor of the difficulties he had adjusting to Canadian living. The case was very much the same with my nonna, though I fear some of her illnesses in recent years have caught up with her, as interviewing her was a bit more difficult than I had expected. Still, the two of them provided me with a lot of information that lined up with what I had come to expect from Italian Canadian immigration stories. Aurora’s interview, similarly, provided me with the exact kind of information I was looking for, specifically, the alterations technological advancements over a 50+ year period have had on the general immigration experience, and how they can be applied to an Italian perspective.
This experience has improved my relationships with the three people I interviewed, and I think it has deepened my understanding of the struggles immigrants face when moving to a new country, whether they speak the language or not (but especially if they do not). I can’t say it has changed how I will interact with people, or whether I will do anything differently, but it has certainly given me more insight into the process of immigration. I have considered continuing my education post-undergrad with some time in law school in the hopes of becoming an immigration lawyer. While the interviews didn’t necessarily create that initial desire, I would say they have only reaffirmed my hopes to become one, especially as I believe the languages I speak (French, English, Italian) could be useful in bridging the language gap to ensure new immigrants to Canada know their rights and are prepared with the knowledge required to face the difficulties that may arise. I think next time, the only thing I would do differently would be to do one initial interview, as I did, and then re-interview my subjects armed with the knowledge of what they would share to ask better follow-up questions. If I had more time, perhaps I would have done just that.
In the end, the interviews went about as well as I had expected them to, and I am happy I had this opportunity to develop my interviewing skills, learn some interesting facts about my family history, and create a document encapsulating these experiences for future reference, not only mine, but for any potential children or grandchildren I may have to refer to as well. The results of this process and reflection can be found below via the Academic Poster I created for this course. I hope it gives even more insight into my goals, what I learned, and their lives.
A PNG copy of my Academic Poster created for ITAL3800, titled “Italian Immigration to Canada, Now and Then: Exploring How 50 Years has Changed the Immigration Experience”.
A PDF copy of my Academic Poster created for ITAL3800, titled “Italian Immigration to Canada, Now and Then: Exploring How 50 Years has Changed the Immigration Experience”.