Presenting – Maria Minna – An Italian-Canadian Immigrant Story and a Life-Long Fight for Justice

Every Canadian neighbourhood is officially represented at three different levels: the municipal, provincial and federal levels. As far as the Beach neighbourhood, civirtualtours is concerned I had already had a chance to get to know the municipal representative, City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Sandra Bussin, and the Provincial Member of Parliament, Michael Prue. I was really looking forward to meeting the Federal Member of Parliament for the Beaches / East York Riding: Maria Minna.

Maria and I met in a small local Chinese restaurant called the Honeybee. This restaurant, located right across from the Beaches Library, has been around forever, vitamondo and on this Saturday afternoon we sat down for a nice late lunch. Maria started to tell me about her background and disclosed that she was born in a small town called Pofi not far from Rome. She spent the first nine years of her life in Italy and grew up on a farm. She refers to her childhood as privileged, since she grew up with holistic food, such as home-grown grapes, fruits and cherries. Her parents were also raising chicken, rabbits and pigs for their, 1stchoicepestcontrol family’s needs. Maria used to go to school for a half day, and would do chores in the afternoon. Her parents would take wheat to the mill and come back with bags of whole wheat flour. Even after many years in Canada, Maria’s mother would never buy canned or frozen vegetables.

In 1957 Maria arrived at 9 years of age at Pier 21 in Halifax together with her mother and siblings. None of them spoke any English. Her father had, randygoodwin already been in Canada. A little anecdote from Maria’s arrival in Canada illustrates the initial culture shock: on the train to Toronto her mother wanted to buy some bread for her children, but was only offered white Wonderbread type of bread. Her mom had a look at the loaf and said “This is not bread.” Until the end of her mother’s days, white bread was only good for toast.

After two days and nights on the train through the snow her mother was wondering where her father had taken them. Maria admitted that the first few years were tough: she did not speak any English, and had to leave her friends in Italy behind. Her dog was also left behind, al3abgame and died of heart break. At the beginning she had difficulty in school because she did not speak any English. She was put a year back in school, had to learn only basic math and had to write in a pencil again. In Italy she had already been writing with a fountain pen. In grade four she finally skipped a grade and recouped one year. Her mother was illiterate and worked in a factory while her father worked in construction. This was a time when there were very few health and safety standards for workers, particularly immigrant workers. Italian children were regularly streamed into vocational schools with lower academic standards. Even as recently as 1987 only 7 % of Italian children went to university.

Maria enlightened me a bit more about the fate of Italian immigrants years ago. During the war many Italian-Canadian men were arrested and detained at the Petawawa, optoki military camp. Although they were Canadian citizens their property was often sold for one or two dollars. Italians were declared enemy aliens and fingerprinted. When Maria arrived, some of the earlier Italian immigrants did not want to deal with the new arrivals; they wanted to blend into Canadian society and not get noticed. Italian men and women were often exploited, and their health was put in danger as they often had to work in inhumane conditions.

When the Toronto subway was built there was a major accident at an area called Hogs Hollow, just south of York Mills Road. Maria explained that five Italian men were buried alive under the Don River. The city person in charge had no idea of construction. Many Italian immigrants worked in jobs that required heavy physical labour and were at a high risk of injury. When they experienced an accident, Workers Compensation would treat them like a piece of meat, and compensate them according to the “meat chart” (they would not receive benefits based on the severity of their disability). Many men suffered a broken back and would be diagnosed with “degenerated disk disease”, a diagnosis that would minimize their claim entitlements, and they were simply encouraged to get a light job.

A tough immigrant story unfolded during Maria’s first few years in Canada: she went to a Catholic Elementary school and her brother had a learning disability, and started to work at age 16. Maria on the other hand took a commercial course at age 18, having worked part time through high school, So Maria started to work as a secretary and helped to pay for her sisters’ education and even paid off one of her parent’s mortgages on the family home.

Maria added that she has always had to carry several responsibilities at the same time. Ever since her parents came to Canada Maria had to become their interpreter and the administrator of family affairs once she had command of the English language. She also helped her parents and other immigrant neighbours with their income tax returns and generally managed the family’s affairs. Up until the recent deaths of both her parents, Maria was overseeing their responsibilities, and when she was giving her father’s eulogy in February of 2006 she realized that now her job was actually done. This funeral was going to be the last responsibility that she had to handle on behalf of her parents. From age ten onwards Maria had been shouldering many family responsibilities including starting dinner, making lunch for her dad and brother, stripping floors and doing housework. In retrospect she says that she never really had a childhood; she does not recall ever really having play time as a child in Canada.


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