Italian immigrants were among the first Europeans to settle in Canada, and their story – crafted largely after the huge waves of immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries — is one of persistence and triumph.
Yet even today, that story keeps changing. Two new initiatives in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Italian Studies testify to the Italian-Canadian community’s continued renewal as it engages with some of the most important issues of our times.
Paolo Frascà is an assistant professor, teaching stream with the department, and the coordinator of two fascinating new projects. Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections, coordinated with Angela Nardozi of OISE, is a series of conferences and workshops, as well as a digital documentation project. It will see scholars and community leaders discuss Indigenous relations and justice system reform. Queer Italian-Canadians, coordinated with Accenti Magazine‘s Licia Canton, is a research, media and publication project documenting the stories and cultural production of Canadians who belong to both Italian and LGBTQ2S+ communities.
Frascà says that both initiatives concentrate on understudied aspects of the Italian-Canadian experience, ones with which many even inside the community may not be familiar. “We wanted to do something that was interesting not only from an academic perspective, but also from social justice, cultural and community perspectives,” he says.
The projects are also timely in that they advance core values of the Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies. Now celebrating its 25th year, the centre was established to study the social, economic and cultural life of Italian-Canadians. Its namesake is the son of working-class Italian immigrants who later rose to become dean of U of T’s Faculty of Law. Iacobucci subsequently served as vice-president and provost of the university, as well as the first Italian-Canadian justice on the Supreme Court of Canada.
We wanted to recognize and work alongside Indigenous people as the first caretakers of this land. It’s what the treaties ask of us.
“Because it’s the anniversary year, we wanted to find ways to honour Frank Iacobucci’s legacy,” says Nicholas Terpstra, a history professor who also holds the Emilio Goggio Chair in Italian Studies. Terpstra says that over the course of his long career, Iacobucci “has been especially concerned with issues pertaining to social justice, inclusion and civil rights.”
Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections held its first event at the end of February. With the title “Starting a Conversation,” it featured speakers with a wide range of intersectional connections to both communities. For example, educator and community mediator Enza Buffa identified as having both Italian and Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) heritage; other guests, such as Mi’kmaq elder and Indigenous Studies scholar Robert Phillips, were connected to the Italian community through personal history or interest in Italian culture.
With this event, “we wanted to recognize and work alongside Indigenous people as the first caretakers of this land,” says Frascà. “It’s what the treaties ask of us.”
The conversation revealed that the communities have much in common: a strong sense of family and spiritual values, and a linguistic and cultural variety that reflects the diversity of histories and practices for both groups. Speakers also shared stories of marginalization and discrimination in the Canadian context.
And yet the event also revealed divergences. Indigenous people in Canada today still contend with the legacy of prejudice and erasure, while Italians “are at a turning point generationally where we’re moving away from the histories of struggle,” says Frascà, who himself immigrated from Italy with his family at the age of 13. “We’ve managed to be really successful in this country, as evidenced by people like Frank Iacobucci and many others as well. So we recognize that history of struggle and poverty, but also that we now have a lot of political, cultural and economic power. And that comes with responsibilities.”
Frascà cites another significant difference between the two communities: “Italians have Italy as a point of reference, as a sovereign country that still exists and can be drawn from culturally. Whereas Indigenous peoples have to fight for sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance in their own place of origin.”
Upcoming events in Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections will include a seminar on how both Italian-Canadian and Indigenous people are represented in the legal and social justice systems, as well as a digital documentation project and a year-end conference that will feature cultural components such as reading and culinary workshops.
A lot of the comments referenced how meaningful it was for them – they said I’m queer, Italian, trans and these are not conversations I’m comfortable having with my family. They were saying, it’s a breath of fresh air to connect these different identities that I have. So the more we do this, the more connections will be made.
Culture is central to Queer Italian-Canadians, the Centre’s second big initiative. In early March, the project kicked off with a screening of Licia Canton’s documentary Creative Spaces: Queer and Italian-Canadian. In the film, writer and researcher Canton interviews a series of Quebec writers on questions of heritage and sexual/gender identity.
Though the pandemic prevented Canton from interviewing as many creators as she would have liked, the screening of her film and subsequent discussion revealed a wide range of experiences. For example, writer Steve Galluccio discussed misunderstandings that he encountered in the health care system while caring for his ailing husband, while spoken-word artist Liana Cusmano talked about the persistent need they feel to misgender themself when visiting their grandmother.
Frascà holds a PhD in both Italian studies and sexual diversity studies, and Queer Italian-Canadians draws together both areas of his expertise. “There were 160 to 170 attendees at this initial event,” he says, including students from his own class on Italian Canadian Culture and Identity. “There’s very much a pedagogical aspect to this. The events take place during class time, because I want students to be exposed to these stories.”
Many outside attendees were deeply moved by the discussion that followed Creative Spaces. “A lot of the comments referenced how meaningful it was for them – they said I’m queer, Italian, trans and these are not conversations I’m comfortable having with my family,” says Frascà. “They were saying, it’s a breath of fresh air to connect these different identities that I have. So the more we do this, the more connections will be made.”
As the project progresses in its aim to document stories from the queer community, Frascà will seek the broadest range possible of contributors. “We’re also looking at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality, such as participants who may be Black, trans and Italian. Correcting under-representation is important in both these projects: we always need to think about the pieces that are missing.”