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A Canadian Viewpoint:
Reflections on Multiculturalism

Anno 5 Numero 8  Agusto 1988

The article that follows was presented as a paper by Adriana Albi Davies at the Seconda Conferenza Nazionale dell'Emigrazione, June 6-8, in New York. Dr. Albi Davies, President of the National Congress of Italian-Canadians, Edmonton District, was one of the delegates selected by the Consul General in Vancouver to represent Western Canada. If you have any opinions that you wish to convey to the Italian government, please write to Dr. Albi Davies, c/o II Congresso.

For the citizens of a nation that is considered one of the cradles of civilization, the question of defining oneself through one's culture and language might seem an exercise in the absurd. After all, we are what we are: a product of one's heredity and environment. The meaning of this statement, when viewed in the context of Italy, an established European state, the cultural identity of which goes back to antiquity, is self evident. However, when applied to the nation slates of the New World, the people of which have been drawn from many nations and many ethnic backgrounds, the issue becomes one of enormous significance.

The question of identity, of "who one is," confronts the immigrant immediately upon his or her arrival in the new country. Arriving as a child in Western Canada in 1951,1 quickly realized that the only people I could now speak to, who could understand me, were my immediate family. In order to communicate with children my own age, I had to acquire their language; in order to be accepted as one of them, I had to learn to dress like them, eat like them and behave like them. Because my swarthy European colouring set me apart, and made me uncomfortably like their unfortunate native peoples, I not only felt I had to be as good in everything as they were, I felt that I had to be better.

This was the Canada I grew up in: my overwhelming desire as I grew up was to conform, not to be different, to merge into the crowd and, if at all possible, to lose that "Italianness" which set me apart.

I grew up; completed university; went abroad to study; and then returned. In this period, the American bicentennary had occurred and the 100th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. It seemed now that an "ethnic" past and roots were fashionable. On the surface, we might all be behaving like English-speaking Canadians but, suddenly, it was alright to be Italian, or Polish, or Ukrainian, or whatever, again. The confusion of one's elders, who had been forced to give up their traditional foods, ways of dress, etc., to become acceptable to their children's friends, was palpable.

In the desire to demonstrate that we had not lost our traditional culture, a positive renaissance of "Italianism" occurred. Folk dancing groups flourished; Italian language schools were established; authors began to write of growing up as an immigrant in North America. The nonnas dressed in black were immortalized in verse. Underpinning all of this was the discovery, on the part of the general population, that Italian food was great. Italian restaurants and negozidi generi alimentari also flourished.

Coming back to this wave of nostalgia for one's immigrant past, one's roots, certainly made me feel more comfortable with who I was when I came to Canada but, inside, I was no longer an immigrant; I had traveled out beyond the ghetto and I certainly did not want to return.

This, then, is the dilemma of the Canadian of Italian origin, as I perceive it. Certainly, there is a love and fondness for things Italian within me and a pride in the contribution that Italians through the ages have made to civilization. However, how can I balance in my mind and in my person classical Italian culture and civilization, with the Italy of today and with my experience as an immigrant growing up in Canada?

We immigrants cannot create or, more accurately, re-create a strong, Italian-Canadian culture based on our individual and collective memories of what it was like in Calabria, or Tuscany, or Sicily. The result is an impoverished display that will lose meaning for our children, growing up surrounded by the powerful images projected by the dream merchants of California.

How, then, do we achieve the vital, vibrant Italian- Canadian culture required if we Italians, as one of Canada's largest ethnic groups, are to take our rightful place in the cultural mosaic envisaged in the Report of the Standing Committee on Multiculturalism, Building the Canadian Mosaic (June 1987)? The Multiculturalism Act talks of promoting the understanding of the complementarity of bilingualism and multiculturalism; of ensuring and supporting the preservation and enhancement of the cultural heritage of minority ethnocultural communities within the context of Canadian society; and of ensuring support for the acquisition, retention and use of Heritage Languages.

We will not achieve this by dredging back to our memories of growing up in Italy. We can only do it by forging strong cultural ties with the country of our birth. This will require the co-operation of both the Italian and Canadian governments, and a visible sign of this co-operation will be the granting of dual citizenship to qualifying individuals. More importantly, there will have to be a strengthening of cultural and educational exchanges. I would like to see a steady stream of students moving freely from one country to the other to continue their studies of language and literature. I would like to see exhibits of Italian contemporary and historic works of art in Canadian museums and galleries, and Canadian works displayed in Italy. I would like to see Canadian performing artists, ranging from the amateur to the professional, performing in Italy for Italians and the converse. It is only through this cross-fertilization of living culture that we, as Italian- Canadians, will be able to contribute to the creation of a rich cultural mosaic.

It will, of course, also require money, from the Italian government, the Canadian government and hosting groups in both countries. Is there any obligation on the part of the Italian government to increase its expenditures in the cultural area in Canada? If one is being harshly realistic one would have to say, no. However, in terms of net gain from the emigration of Italians to Canada, the advantage is on the part of Italy. Over the years, Italy has gained in hard currency from the sweat of the labourers who toiled in Canadian mines, forestry camps and the railways, to send money back to the family at home. Today, the trade balance also favours Italy.

One hundred years ago the Scalabrinian order was set up as an inspired move on the part of an Italian bishop to keep the faith alive, and with it the Italian language and Italian customs, initially in North America. This network subsequently spread worldwide.

Cannot the Italian government aid Italian communities abroad, which desire to retain a strong link with the culture and traditions of their homeland, by providing a mechanism for free cultural exchange, making use of all of the benefits of modern technology. Thus, besides scholarships to facilitate study in either country, materials for Italian language schools could be provided free or at cost through Italian consulates; cultural institutes could facilitate visits by artists and performers; copyrights arrangements could be made to permit use of Italian video materials. The list of concrete examples of cultural co-operation is endless.

It should not be my experience as an Italian immigrant recounted ad nauseum that defines me but rather my strong cultural ties with contemporary Italy.