English Articles

We owe everything to our parents

We publish the Italian translation of the article by Flavio Volpe which appeared first on January 3rd in the Toronto Star.

TORONTO – There is no honour as humbling as being recognized by your country.

When the voice from the Governor General’s office said, “I’m calling to inform you that you’ve been named to the Order of Canada,” I froze. As she paused to let me gather my thoughts, my mind went immediately to my parents. My family’s experience mirrored that of so many immigrants to Canada. Parents and grandparents who set out with dreams of a better life for their families, of the hard work and sacrifices it took to achieve it.

I thought first of my mother, the late Mirella DePersis Volpe. She was the one whose spirit of community and intentional leadership I have strived to emulate in anything I’ve ever done. She came here in 1963 from Veroli, Italy, as a strong, charismatic girl of 14. As she would often recall, Canada was a cold country which spoke a language she didn’t understand. After a brief bit of homesickness, she enrolled at Oakwood Collegiate and started a lifelong journey striving to make her St. Clair Avenue West “Corso Italia” community better.

As far back as I can remember, she was always at the front. PTA chair, Neighbourhood Watch campaign manager and surrogate mom and big sister to everyone. She left her management job at an insurance company to raise a family of four but when we were all school aged, she went back to university at age 38.

Graduating Summa Cum Laude while her kids were in high school, she warned us that she was in fact the pace setter in a family that included the local member of Parliament. Her children were expected to serve and to lead and she was going to teach us every way possible. She was as warm as she was firm, and here compassionate temperament is remembered fondly by everyone she lifted up.

My father, Joseph Volpe, came here in 1955, barely seven years old, from a charming southern Italian hilltop town named Monteleone, “Mount of Lions.” His family of lions, many of them veterans of the Franco-Prussian War, had been coming back and forth to Canada since the 1880s.

My great grandfather, Leonardo Liscio, settled here with his wife and daughter in 1902 like so many immigrant families at the time in “The Ward.” He laid tracks for the Toronto Transit Commission during the day and moonlit at General Electric at night. When Carmelina died of complications from childbirth at Victoria Children’s Hospital in 1910, he buried her at Mount Hope Cemetery, went back to Italy to raise his children with family, remarried and then had four more [children].

Five of those kids, including my grandmother, returned to Toronto after the war and raised a hardworking, community-driven family in a bustling Kensington Market. Just after he left, Leonardo’s home had been the first house expropriated to build the Toronto General Hospital in 1911. For us, Leonardo was unwittingly the first major donor to what has become a world-renowned Canadian institution.

My father was my greatest teacher, most dedicated mentor and was always meant to be the first person I called. A child of two working parents, he’d worked throughout his school years to help them carry the family’s load. I learned from him the dignity of hard work. Through the phone, he asked, “Are you crying? This is great news!” I was and it was. There is no one who inspired an active citizenship in me more than my father. In that moment I was overwhelmed with how much he deserved to hear from me first. For decades, I’d miss him dearly when he was at work in Ottawa or travelling to capitals around the world representing Canada.

The motto of the Order of Canada is, “They desire a better country.” I’m truly humbled to join a list of so many of the people I’ve looked up to throughout my life. My appointment though is a dedication to my parents, the strongest influence in my life. If I have accomplished anything of note, it’s because those two kids from Italy decided to love Canada and the family they built here, together.

Flavio Volpe, C.M, is head of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association and a member of the Order of Canada

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