I am Canadian. No wait, I'm Italian. On second thought I was born in Toronto, so I'm most certainly Canadian. No, no, no .. I was born to Italian immigrant parents and I only spoke Italian until the age of four. So, I must be Italian. Let's call it a draw, I'm Canadian-Italian or Italian-Canadian? Is this a personal crisis?
Like many first generation Canadians, being born in this country, but raised by parents who are landed immigrants is complex and completely identity distorting. You grow up in a home ecosystem immersed in your parents country of origin. For me, my upbringing was firmly structured in Italian culture. I got the entire gamut of Italian essence. My mother was born in Southern Italy but raised in Rome. My father hailed from the Italian Alpine region, best known for its skiing and polenta. In fact, his home town was so far north that only a few kilometres away, the closest town spoke German. So you could say I got the best of both ends of the boot!
Italian style and traditions permeated through our house: we spoke only Italian in the home, mom insisted in making any sauce from scratch, no soft white lunch bread allowed (I envied those Wonder Bread kids at school) and she ensured our furniture was properly protected with durable non aerated plastic. And I'm pretty sure we never recycled!
We only attended mass if the priest conducted it in Italian (Latin was acceptable), we had a vegetable garden that grew radicchio and arugula (I thought iceberg lettuce was a delicacy imported from Alaska) and ceramic tile was laid everywhere, except the driveway. We had a second kitchen in the basement, a clothesline outside and watched Italian soccer every Sunday no matter what team was playing. At the local theatre, we only went to Italian language movies, we never drank drip coffee, and my parents' explicit Italian rules and Catholic values was the basis of our upbringing.
Even our family games were Italian inspired: Bingo was Tomboloa, bowling was bocce and there was no playing "Go Fish" -- we played games called Scopa and Briscola with funny little playing cards!
It gets better. My parents had the real Italian "weapons of mass destruction" which consisted of a wooden spoon, leather belt, and the notorious heat seeking leather slipper that when hurled at you, was just as effective as "Oddjob's" iconic decapitating hat in the James Bond flick, Goldfinger. These primitive weapons were only used in moderation to assert parental guidance and to discipline unruly children. And frankly, it worked. I respect authority and to this very day, I always make my bed.
Rooms were adorned with a crucifix, Mother Mary hovering over my head on the bedroom wall, and at least a few Pope and Saint pictures strewn on top of our clunker Zenith TV. My dad made his own wine, sausages, aged mouthwatering rounds of cheese and when my uncle got the illegal still, well, we produced the best grappa outside of Veneto. Even the local cops dropped by for a bottle at Christmas time. Every night we ate dinner at the table at exactly 6 p.m. with no T.V. on. We spoke passionately and loudly. We always kissed and hugged each other good night.
I grew up in Canada raised by parents who were staunchly Italian. They raised me and my brother in the only manner they knew. Being a Canadian to them was foreign and just slowly being explored. They were not immersed in a Canadian centric way of life, instead they found comfort and acceptance in a predominately Italian neighbourhood and working alongside other Italian immigrants. It worked for all of us. Canada is a mosaic after all!
So for the longest time if anyone asked me where I was from I responded, "I was born in Canada," but quickly added, "I'm actually Italian." I always clarified my roots, as if to add a footnote in a book or a clause to a contract. I needed to assert my rightful identity. Being raised by immigrant parents was like being swaddled in a foreign country's culture without ever visiting it.
My parents raised me with an Italian paintbrush against a stark blank Canadian canvas which we discovered together slowly and willingly as a family, and on my own life's journey through school, work, marriage and raising a family.
I've lived in Canada all my life and I don't have an identity crisis anymore. My parents may have raised me in the cultural sensitivities of their homeland, but they were the ones who educated me as to what Canada truly stands for.
My Canada is not defined by a national donut chain restaurant, a petulant adolescent tatted up entertainer, a tech company or an absurd politician. My Canada represents freedom, tolerance and beauty which is what brought my parents here more than 50 years ago and why they became Canadian citizens.
Where am I from? I can answer that easily. I'm from Canada. I'm Canadian, first and foremost. And proud of it.
As for my Italian heritage...I wouldn't be who I am without that.
Happy Canada Day long weekend!
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