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Community Consultations: Report of Activities and Outcomes

Multicultural Initiatives, Strategic Office
Library and Archives Canada
August 2006

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10. Italian Community Consultation, Ottawa, ON

At the outset of the Italian community session, participants asked for information about the consultation process. Which organizations had been contacted, what were the criteria for inclusion, and would the information gleaned ultimately be shared? Following some explanation, the consultations were referred to as a "great idea, long overdue." This session was also described as timely since it coincided with the development of some key research projects within the community, including exploration of the work of Italo-Canadian fresco painter and stained glass artist, Guido Nincheri.16

10.1 Italian Community in Ottawa

The presence of the Italian community in Canada and the contributions of Italian Canadians have long been established. Session participants referred to the distinct layers that exist within the Italian community in Ottawa and noted that the particular era of settlement is a key factor that influences community character. For instance, Italians who arrived in Canada to work on the railroads in the early years of the twentieth century were seen to have very different experiences from subsequent generations.

Today, sizeable Italo-Canadian communities can be found in disparate regions of Canada, and many of these reflect the large post-war influx of Italian immigrants to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, newcomers aimed to integrate and adapt to the 'Canadian' way of life. Participants said that today, recent arrivals often retain their language and culture, a reflection of a modern move away from the notion of 'melting pot.' It was suggested that this connection to tradition and heritage is often more pronounced for Italo-Canadians (a term favoured by session participants) than for Italians at home. A number of the children of second and third generation Italo-Canadians attend weekend language schools, often in cases where one parent is Italian or the children were born in Canada to Italian parents.

The Italian community in Ottawa was described as both "a united community and a divided community." Several participants pointed out that Italy itself is a very diverse country with clear demarcations between regions in which language and culture can vary a great deal. Language remains a prominent issue today and participants noted the many dialects spoken, each representing a language distinct from Italian--a fact not always recognized beyond the community.

As one participant put it, "I can speak my mother's dialect, but if asked, I say I don't speak Italian." When this guest's family arrived in Canada in the 1950s it was important to assimilate: "If you were connected [to home] with a sense of pride in heritage, that was enough; language often fell by the wayside."

At times, language is viewed as a barrier within the community since regional traditions predominate. Culture, relationships (especially where new immigrants seek to join family in Canada), the ideology of Italy, and the tie to community (not necessarily language), were described as the integral anchors of Italian life. These anchors-- particularly a commitment to family life-- are often paramount in the lives of Italo-Canadian children who may not speak any Italian.

In Ottawa, the Preston Street (or Corso Italia) area has long been a focal point for the Italian community. Today it is still recognized as "the heart of Little Italy." Community members identify Preston Street as "their Italy" and meet there to recognize all kinds of occasions and celebrations. While it was noted that new immigrants from Italy today are unlikely to move in and around Preston street (and more likely to move to more suburban areas beyond the city centre), participants referenced the continued ties to the neighbourhood and acknowledged that they "have left a stamp here"; successive generations each claim the area for their own.

Guests noted that what is recognized as 'Italian culture' today is not what Italian culture was 100 years ago; to the second or third generation today, the heritage represented by Preston Street is Italian culture. Regardless, Preston Street represents a kind of "home base" which centres around the businesses, schools, and churches found there. Many community members are working to maintain that stamp for generations to come.

10.2 Perspectives on Libraries and Archives

10.2.1 Libraries

In general, libraries were seen as vehicles that connect people with the past and provide links to history (including family history). According to many participants, public libraries in the Ottawa area lack Italian representation; there is a sense that there is nothing at the library for them. While guests recognize a need to focus on Italo-Canadians and their contributions to society, they have yet to see relevant materials on library shelves.17 Given that this is the case, libraries are not considered a priority within the community. Guests felt that fewer in-person visits to the library were made today than in the past, but acknowledged that more use could be made of these organizations. Participants also suggested that they could play a more significant role in facilitating the acquisition of books from Italy.

Participants suggested that electronic resources, (deemed essential for connecting with youth), are preferred vehicles for highlighting information about Italians in Ottawa. The Internet was viewed as an invaluable tool to promote Italian culture and resources. Youth generations were said to be eager to learn about their roots and guests acknowledged that this demographic could only be reached by "going high-tech" to support interest in electronic resources.

Guests encouraged libraries to find additional ways to take resources to the consumer. Many participants felt that partnerships were required to generate interest. They underscored the need for libraries to meet with the community on its own terms, where community members gather. Participants noted that Italian community members are willing to share their stories where the venue is agreeable to them and community buy-in has been secured. In the past, the community has had to learn about culture in an "assimilated environment" (say, public libraries that do not necessarily reflect their interests). While partnerships with other heritage organizations are encouraged, a more centralized approach is not similarly welcomed. "Place, pride, accessibility, ownership" were described as the key tenets to guide new undertakings.

10.2.2 Archives

There is a desire within the community to make archives accessible, both digitally and/or on loan via community cultural centres. A recent initiative held at an Italian community facility inspired the sharing of cultural artifacts (a large number of these transported from Italy) and demonstrated the interest in doing so; older generations were eager to tell their stories in this case. Community members have already identified potential locales for similar exhibits and exchange; partnerships between institutions are necessary to facilitate this process. A number of community institutions lack the space/storage and professional expertise to support collections directly.

Participants noted requirements for archival assistance and Web support, and stressed that, given the right approach, community members and researchers would be willing to undertake much of the leg work required: "We can collect, but to put it all together, we need someone else." Participants noted that content exists: "It is in the communities but getting it out of communities is a sensitive thing." Ownership is a top-of-mind issue and key questions prevail: "Who owns [these items] and how do you retain [them]?" There is a reluctance to 'hand off' community materials without the assurance of a "safe place" where preservation and accessibility are priorities.

Infrastructure is required to allow Italians across all regions of Canada to connect and share (facilitation of this goal was suggested as a potential role for Library and Archives Canada). According to several participants, a "big goal" is the development of an Italo-Canadian museum, a single location to serve as a "national Italian Canadian place where we can house our treasures."

10.3 Relationship with LAC

Participants said that within the Italian community, Library and Archives Canada is recognized first and foremost as an architectural landmark (395 Wellington Street, Ottawa); most are not users of the institution and have yet to discover its mandate. However, it was reported that some academic members of the community had positive things to say about LAC and that there was a general appreciation for its archival role.

In some cases, LAC was seen as a potential source of key historical information, including that concerning the internment of Italian Canadians during WWII. Making such information public was deemed essential in order for all Canadians to learn from this history.

10.4 Roles for LAC

Professional assistance and partnerships are desired from Library and Archives Canada. The organization is encouraged to:

  • Support the development of infrastructure to ensure cultural materials can be shared nationally
  • Facilitate partnerships to ensure accessibility (important not only for the Italian community but for all Canadians; there is also a need for information sharing between communities)
  • Offer expertise to assist cataloguing, archival development, and preservation within communities
  • Continue the consultation process by participating in broader meetings within the community facilitated by way of community associations; there is need to assemble a cross-section of people as part of a community network18

16. A description of Guido Nincheri's work was submitted by a family member (Montréal) subsequent to this meeting.

17. However, it was noted that the Italian community has donated books to the Ottawa Public Library in the past.

18. An additional hardcopy list of current and proposed Italo-Canadian community initiatives was provided by a consultation participant.

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