What does the average Torontonian know about his Italian neighbors?

di Odoardo DiSanto del 28 January 2020

TORONTO, July 16th 1970 - It has become commonplace to hear that nothing has changed Toronto in the past 15 years so much as the huge influx of immigrants from all over the world, and especially from Europe.

The largest single group Is made up of Italians, who number about 350,000- a sizeable city by Canadian or European standards.

But what does the average Torontonian know about his Italian neighbour? The answer is simple: Torontonians are only vaguely aware of the community of Italians here.

Their concentration in certain areas of their city, their reliance on certain typed of jobs(usually in the construction field), their success in preserving certain traditional needs and habits, their communal living partner- all these have enables Italians in Toronto to become almost a self-sufficient community.

Consciously or not, they are trying to soften the sometimes unsettling sometimes traumatic, shock of being transplanted into a society where the language, culture, working methods and leisure habits are different.

This is a self-sufficiency, however, with serious drawbacks. It has prevented the kind of constructive for wars looking integration in which two cultures interact, influence and eventually change each other. That this has not taken place to any significant degree is really to the disadvantage of both groups.

One sometimes gets the feeling that native Canadians are quite satisfied to keep newcomers at the distance. The meeting of diŠerent cultures has seldom been free of animosity; In Toronto, though, we have been remarkably successful in avoiding crisis and confrontations.

Tis tranquillity, however, is the off-spring of indifference and separateness. Immigrants, for the most part, are strong, courageous people.

They have lacked the courage, however, to stake out a claim on their equal participation in Canadian society on their own terms- that is, as the third element in a traditionally bilingual and bicultural society.

The two founding cultures, on the other hand, have not yet made the effort to meet this element of neutral ground.

In Toronto we have a situation where the presence of some 350,000 people is largely ignored. This means, first of all, that the many problem experienced by this community are not considered our problems. But this is a mistake. If we do not recognize that the sooner newcomers are made to feel Canadian, the easier it will be to avoid misunderstandings and problems in the future our society will be the loser.

Ignorance about the Italians, while understandable in the man on the street, in inexcusable when it is reflected in our newspapers and in our schools- the two fundamental forced that shape public opinion.

When the press deals with Italians it is usually for one of the two reasons: to speculate on the presence of the Mafia among them, thus creating the image of a crime-infested community, or to portray the “picturesque” and “colorful” life of “Little Italy”. Both images are distorted stereotypes.

On the other hand, the journalist who wishes to “document” his work usually contacts those elements I the community called “leaders” or “spokesmen”. They are generally people who have succeeded in becoming successful entrepreneur. They are on “top” in the financial sense, but culturally and psychologically they are far removed from the present generation of immigrants with whom they don’t communicate and whose aspiration they cannot interpret.

It is these “leaders” who often present a distorted image of the community. Their desire to achieve and retain positions of authority is understandable. But they are simply out of touch, although their power (they may control the mass media in the community, and they sometimes provide jobs) is considerable, especially in a political context. But power and respect are not synonymous, and these politicians who rely on these “intermediaries” for votes commit a grave error of judgment.

A more intelligent a meaningful relationship must, therefore, be established between the Italian community and the public. And the press can play an effective role in this direction. It must, first of all, be an informed press, in a social and especially in a cultural sense, because what is involved is nothing less than an effort to understand a people many ways different from the average Canadian.

Italians, of course, to meet in noisy groups and to heatedly discuss sports, politics, hunting. Noisiness for many Canadians is distasteful.

I reveals an approach to life in many ways antithetical to that of Puritan spirt, which is still felt and seen by an Italian in city such as Toronto with its rigidly linear streets, strict liquor laws and a downtown that gives the impression it is a place to sweat and toil. Italians are an “outdoors” people in the sense that the neighbourhood is an extension of home: it is where relatives settle and friends live, where the open-air restaurant in the summer is an exquisite attempt to recapture the sweet Mediterranean pleasure of doing nothing on a Sunday afternoon or a warm evening in July.

It is not, therefore, idleness that prompts endless arguments, or the sidewalk discussions or, in a wider context, the development of “Italian” areas of the city. Italians have, in fact, shown, that, transplanted from a rural or semi-industrial background of limited opportunity to a more favorable, upwardly mobile society, they quickly get to work.

Many of the often, perhaps because they do come from a rural society, identify security with a home; and Toronto is full of once decrepit houses which have been transformed into bright, cherry, solid buildings.

They are perhaps mortgaged to the hilt, and perhaps overcrowded, but it is a case of the individual solving the problem of urban renewal.

There are then, considerable differences of a social and cultural character between Italians and most other Canadians. For too long these differences have been treated as an obstacle to integration.

For me, rather, the objective realization of these diferences would make this country an example to the world. It will require great effort, but the results will be more than worth it.

Our schools can do a great deal to widen the cultural horizon of young Canadians. But it is newspapers that. Whether they want it or not, can do much now. They can do it, however, only if those who report the news, or who write special features, are aware theta being Italian does not simply mean that a person talk sin a loud voice, likes spaghetti, and gestures with his hands.

It means that, whether he is conscious of it or not, he belongs to a culture that has been kept alive through 2000 years of history; it also means that even a peasant from a lonely backward village is the product of the history.

The simple artisan who fixes his house in Little Italy with pride is perhaps the last in line that started many generations ago.

A careful observer is one who is perceptive enough to go beyond the obvious; who is sensitive enough to grasp the meaning in a gesture; who, in other words is cultured enough to be aware that history has shaped people in different ways. But it takes more than perception and sensitivity- it takes wisdom to grasp the full significance of the opportunity this country has.

There is the possibility of grafting on the two founding cultures the best elements of the culture’s traditions of the many ethnic groups which have started to make room for themselves in this huge country.

The magnificent prospect is that of a country which will consider Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Cervantes, Corneille, Bach, Verdi, Tolstoy, etc., all part of the same heritage. It may be a utopian ideal. We live, however, in an age that has already demonstrated its capacity to turn utopia into reality.

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