Breaking away to the Old World

As opportunities crumble in Canada, Italians are returning to their homeland

Liz Guccione January 19 1981

Breaking away to the Old World

As opportunities crumble in Canada, Italians are returning to their homeland

Liz Guccione January 19 1981

Breaking away to the Old World

As opportunities crumble in Canada, Italians are returning to their homeland


Liz Guccione

The small family waiting in the consul’s office would have been immediately identifiable anywhere in Canada—immigrants from southern Europe. The mother’s black dress and stockings gave the general location, and the father’s close-fitting coppola, the flat cap worn by men throughout Southern Italy,made the location precise. But it was their teen-age son, a head taller than his parents, who filled in the picture, telling how long the family had been in Canada and revealing, at the same time, the paradox of post-war immigration. In his electricblue bomber jacket, faded Levi’s and Adidas shoes, he was unmistakably Canadian. Yet, his Italian still good, he was doing most of the talking. In one hand he held his Canadian school transcripts, which were being evaluated and then translated into Italian—one more step in the family’s final preparations for their permanent move back to Italy.

The family reflects a growing trend in Canada, as Italians in ever-increasing numbers pack their bags, trunks and steamship cartons and return home. Today, perhaps for the first time in the country’s history, more Italians are leaving each year than entering. The figure may be temporarily reversed as Canada accepts refugees from November’s tragic Naples earthquake, but the outflow of Italians to the unaffected areas of Italy shows every sign of continuing. With the Canadian economy sliding toward disaster, the promise of the new land is no longer as bright. While Canadians have joked about the instability of the Italian government and economy, the hard truth is emerging that things in some ways are better there than here. The repercussions are serious for Canada because the exodus underlines areas in the immigration policy where promises have fallen far short of fulfillment.

The promises of a better life in the new land were hefty enough to promote an explosion of the Italian population in the ’50s. In 1951, Canada’s Italian population stood at 152,000; by the time large-scale immigration from Italy had ended in 1970, the population had increased almost fivefold to 730,000. The everyday lives of Canadians have been subtly changed by the Italian presence, as dour Anglo-Saxon cities have been transformed into lively cosmopoli. To those for whom the very notion of “immigrant” may mean “Italian,” an era is ending.

Emigration—or “reverse migration”—has always been a part of immigration: 15 per cent of all newcomers to Canada return home within three years. But these rimpatriati represent something new since they’re not pensioner^ or failures but men in the prime of their working years, young families with growing children and immigrants who have been in the country for 10,12 or 15 years. The trend may signal something larger: an end to what one historian has called “the greatest folk movement in history, ancient and modern”—the Atlantic migration, 300 years of uprooting, transplanting and assimilation, in which the poor and dispossessed of Europe sought the promise of the New World.

Official statistics recently published in Italy can give only a partial idea of the extent of the reverse migration because the figures are collected slowly from individual city halls months after individual immigrants return to Italy. In 1978, 2,243 Italians entered Canada, while 2,664 left; in 1979, official entries dropped to 1,913, those returning to 2,545. But according to an informal survey conducted last spring by the Toronto Star, almost 6,000 immigrants left Canada for Italy in 1979. The exodus is most obvious in Toronto, with its Italian population of 450,000:1,600 Italians left for home in 1979, 33 per cent more than the previous year. But it’s obvious in Montreal as well, and even in Vancouver, whose small community lost 100 people to repatriation in 1979. Not included in the estimates are the hundreds of immigrants who have retained their Italian passports and do not have to visit the Italian consulates before returning home.

The rimpatriati represent the dark underside of the bright success story of Italians in Canada. The success is highly visible, for instance, in the impact the Italian community has had on a city like Toronto: in the professions, construction, food processing and politics. Italian influence has spilled into North American mass culture from food to fashion to film.

The success story becomes overwhelming when one considers the odds against it. “No other immigrants have come to this country with such low educational levels,” says Clifford Jansen, a York University sociologist specializing in Italian ethnic studies. Because of their background, Italians have traditionally found jobs at the low end of the occupational totem pole. Even when differences in education, training and social origin don’t exist, University of Saskatchewan sociologist Peter Li has discovered, the Italian immigrant still enters the labor market at a much lower level than the British immigrant. Racial discrimination exists in Canada, according to Li, where it hurts most, in the job market. Even economic success has a sharp two-sided edge. Italians now receive the highest wages of any immigrant group in Canada, but only because they are typically employed in “precarious” industries like construction and in “low prestige” jobs which require few skills. Any downswing in the economy and these jobs are the first to go.

Economics, predictably, is the main impetus behind the current exodus from Canada. In 1979, according to the government statistics office, Ufficio Centrale di Statistica, Italy enjoyed what is probably the best economic performance in Europe with a surprising growth rate of five per cent. Although the earthquake may deter this prosperity, it still might compare with the growth rate in Canada, which in 1980 declined by one per cent while unemployment hovered near the eight-percent mark and inflation soared.

Faced with bleak financial prospects and a strange, cold culture, Nunzio DiCesare of Windsor, Ont., is perhaps typical of the rimpatriati. “I thought Canada was one of the richest countries in the world, but I can’t make enough to take care of my children,” said the 35year-old machine and crane operator recently as he prepared for his move back to Italy after eight months of unemployment. He came to Canada in 1963, one of seven children of a shepherd in the mountain village of Serracapriola, 50 km outside Foggia by Italy’s south Adriatic coast. “We were poor,” recalls DiCesare, “but every Easter we all had new shoes, white shirts— and my oldest brother had a gold watch. I can’t buy my son new jeans. I had a happier childhood than my kids. ... I feel I am cheating them.” Although he studied auto mechanics for three years in a special school in Rome, DiCesare found he could not use his training once in Canada: “In Rome, I was taking apart big Ferrari engines and putting them back together again. The only job I could get here was changing spark plugs for $1 an hour, seven days a week.”

At the local Ontario Apprenticeship office, DiCesare found what he claims is a Catch-22 system effectively designed to keep immigrants from using the skills they bring with them. For most trades, provincial regulations require the educational equivalent of Ontario Grade 10 and five years experience— gained only after the applicant has turned 16—before he can take Ontario qualifying tests, which offer the practical portion in their own language and the written part only in English and French. But most young men in the European vocational system, like DiCesare, end their formal schooling after Grade 8 when they enter the apprenticeship program at age 14. Before he could advance beyond the spark plug stage, DiCesare was told, he would have to complete a five-year apprenticeship program at a local community college, a program offered only in English. For DiCesare, who was beginning night school to learn the language, further training in a trade he had already mastered became an impossibility.

That DiCesare could not meet the requirements of his trade may not be the important point, since they are the same requirements Canadian-born tradesmen must meet. But DiCesare didn’t know about these requirements before he came to Canada because, like more than 90 per cent of his countrymen, he came as a sponsored immigrant. With no skills testing and little vocational counselling, sponsorship by relatives in the ’50s and ’60s made sense for the immigrant in terms of family reunification, and sense for Canada, in terms of short-term labor needs in a period of high growth and low employment. But to ensure that cases like DiCesare’s will be few and far between in the future, says an Employment and Immigration Commission spokesman, the current immigration policy, introduced in 1967, requires that almost all immigrants meet a point system based on vocational training abroad and

internal labor demand.

For DiCesare and many others who are leaving, this is small consolation. Unable to practise the relatively secure trade of auto mechanic, without longrange employment opportunities in the highly volatile construction industry, he sees no future for himself in Canada. His story, he believes, must be repeated across Canada: skilled workmen channelled into unskilled jobs in heavy industry, while Canadian officials advertise in Europe for men with the skills and training that industry acutely lacks.

His story was repeated recently, only 50 km southeast of Windsor, in a house set in the rich farmlands of Leamington where a 40-year-old woman and her two teen-age daughters were about to return to Italy. Her husband, after five years in Canada, had already gone ahead of them back to Italy and then on to Switzerland, where he had once worked as an electrician before immigrating to Canada. In Leamington, he had to accept work as a gardener for $3 an hour, while his wife, who had experience as a lab technician in Switzerland at a factory producing fibreglass dolls, worked in a nursery, cutting roses seven days a week to help pay the rent. North America, she says, is a “land of


Adriatic Sea



Mediterranean Sea

Ionian Sea

winners” where everyone is on his own: “I was always given the idea that if you don’t work hard enough, we can easily find someone else. They don’t look at your face at work—you are only a machine, an object.”

Her daughters agree about the differences in temperament. “The schools are so different in Canada,” says the eldest. “The children seem afraid to be close, to share their feelings. The faces of the people look sad—no one says ‘Good morning’ on the street.” Adds her mother: “In Canada, people just work and go home. In Italy, after work we go out, everyone is walking in the streets, and we go everywhere. In Italy, we have freedom.” (It is the same word DiCesare uses—giving an ironic twist to the long history of European immigration to the promised land across the Atlantic.)

Indeed, the search for cultural “freedom” is often strong enough that it doesn’t need the added economic stimulus to prod a young, capable person into going back. For Mauro Antonacci, the longing to return to Italy is based almost entirely on cultural values. The 22-year-old student is planning to move

to Rome with his fiancée, Mary Claire Odorico, once he completes his civil engineering course at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Antonacci moved to Canada with his family when he was 8V2 years old, but Canadian culture could never displace his Italian identity. “Canadians have no sense of individuality,” he says. “There’s no questioning of authority. Even the children seem all the same, where in Italy they have distinct personalities at an early age.”

For a young professional, the chaos of Italian life—the sloppy government, the tumult of the streets of Rome, the terrorism and the fear of earthquakes— would appear to be antithetical to a stable career. But such disorder attracts Antonacci. “The people are alive and

living,” he says. “The streets are so teeming with activity that it’s impossible to become depressed.”

This teeming activity is prevalent in the villages and towns of Italy’s Mezzogiorno, the dry regions of the south of Rome which in the past few years have begun to have the Canadian experience in reverse—more coming home than leaving. Some rimpatriati, from the earthquake-devastated regions of Campania and Basilicata, will not find the friends and towns of their childhood; more than one ancient mountain village was destroyed in the November earthquake. But others will find their towns changed, too—decimated by wholescale emigration in the past 30 years to Germany, Northern Italy and the Americas.

Lercara Friddi, in the mountainous interior of Sicily and unaffected by the quake, is typical of those towns where native sons are beginning to trickle back from the outside world. The family of Damiano Pellitteri lives on one of the quieter streets, in the newly rehabilitated half of an ancient crumbling gristmill, now converted into an allevamento di pollo (chicken farm). Pellitteri came back in 1975, after working for 10 years in a Windsor parts factory.

For his two daughters, the five years in Italy have produced a much more sympathetic daily routine than the 9-to5 Canadian existence. Italian sociability is intensified by housework in the morning, a large leisurely mid-day meal with the entire family home, a long rest or siesta afterwards, and then, in the afternoon and evening, time for the passeggiata—evening stroll—and visiting friends. For Pellitteri, the move home has spurred dreams of prosperity: Italy, he argues, is much less dependent on large-scale industry than Canada. “Here, there are always little jobs somewhere, always people working in Germany who come back in the summer with money in their pockets, able to buy something.” (Last year, for instance, migrant workers in Germany sent home—to Sicily alone—more than 100 billion lira, roughly $120,000,000.)

Pellitteri’s rosy view of Italy’s economic health is confirmed by the studies Italian economists have made of their country’s well-known “black economy,” the off-the-books productivity that never appears in government data: workers on unemployment benefits who don’t admit they have jobs; government employees with after-hours businesses; and larger, legitimate firms that contract work out to these “unofficial” businesses in order to reduce costs. Political crisis, according to Forbes magazine, may actually contribute to economic growth—a government fighting terrorism, general strikes, and an imminent fall from political power may be too weak to collect taxes efficiently (one in six Italian businesses, for instance, reports sales revenues of less than $6 a day—and gets away with it). Official statistics may thus be wildly inaccurate: the current unemployment rate of seven per cent may actually be closer to four per cent and the 1979 gross national product of $236 billion may really have been as much as 40 per cent higher.

Even in the nonindustrialized Mezzogiorno the growth is evident everywhere: streets are dusty with fallout from nearby construction as commercial and apartment buildings begin to mar the traditional skylines of medieval towns. New hotels and restaurants—the latter so new that self-service spots now outnumber the traditional trattorie—sprout up in fastgrowing tourist areas like Sicily’s San Vito lo Capo. The family of Antonio and Santina Cipolla, who at one time lived in Leamington, Ont., is counting on the rapid growth of San Vito tourism to repay them for the 12-hour days they have been working in preparation for their new restaurant: the Napoli SelfService. The family of four has moved three times in the past 15 years, first to Braunschweig, Germany—“We were even saving money there,” says Santina Cipolla—and then to Leamington, where Antonio could find work only as a night watchman for a local fishery and his wife had to settle for seasonal work peeling tomatoes for a cannery. Economic difficulties were overshadowed by family tragedy when one of their three children died at the age of 2 . “We wanted to live again in a place where doctors spoke Italian,” says Antonio Cipolla.

But it was the pull of family ties—and family assistance—that brought the Cipollas back home again. The Napoli Self-Service is a joint project: financed by family funds, designated by Santina’s brother—an architecture student—the restaurant is being installed with the help of two other brothers in a house owned by their father. “Finally, families in Italy are in a position to help,” says Italian Consul Alessio Gabotto in Toronto. In the past it has been the immigrant in North America who sent money home to help those who were left behind.

The Italian government is beginning to take part in rimpatrio, too, with transportation grants and low-cost loans for small businesses. Quoting Italian writer Giuseppe Prezzolini, who called emigration “a national tragedy,” Consul Gabotto tried to explain why his country was still willing to help longgone countrymen, many of them no longer Italian citizens: “You must see it from the perspective of a country which has been sending millions of its people away for more than a century. Ninety per cent had to emigrate to survive, and they left unwillingly. Every citizen still in Italy is responsible to those people who had to leave their country.”

Critics of Canada’s once-expansionary immigration policy say that while the country has been able to absorb the massive immigration of the past 30 years, it has not always been to the benefit of the immigrant. There’s no question it has benefited Canada. In the high-growth period of the ’50s and ’60s, when Canadian construction workers and laborers were lured south by high U.S. wages, immigration more than doubled the labor force, an essential component in the transformation of the country into the industrialized nation it is today. Now, in no-growth economy conditions, these immigrants are the first to suffer.

With the tide of immigration turning, Canadians must decide whether it has been a history of absorption and assimilation—or of alienation and exploitation. Immigrants themselves are quick to point out that fellow immigrants, here before them, have often been the most exploitive employers. One immigrant recalled fond memories as he waited in the Italian vice-consulate in Windsor for his emigration papers: “Canada is still the best country in the

world—we asked to come, and they let us.” Adds his wife, who does not want to leave: “People who don’t like Canadians haven’t been exposed to them long enough—they’re cold on the outside, but warm on the inside.”

The history concludes, at least for Italy, on a positive note: more and more Italians will not have to immigrate to survive. And for immigrants who long for home, many more will find it possible to return: “We all come here,” says one Italo-Canadian woman, “with the idea of returning in the back of our minds. We stay because we are proud, because we cannot go back if we didn’t make it here.” Now that that inhibition is being broken down by the first rimpatriati, others may feel they can follow.

But in human terms, the return home may have its costs. Filippo Pellitteri, now 17 and a student in Lercara, remembers Canada as a lost paradise where as a boy of 12 he rode his bicycle with friends on wide, tree-lined streets. Like other children who came back to Italy during their early adolescence, Filippo feels life has dealt him hard blows. Not in Canada long enough to learn English, set back in Italian schools when he returned, he feels now he may never catch up.

Eventually, some of these rimpatriati will find their way back to Canada again, giving special poignancy to the Italian word for foreigner—straniero (stranger). “Anyone who crosses the ocean after he is 15 is screwed for life,” concludes one immigrant, now in his late 30s, who has made Canada his permanent home. “I always planned to go back because I was a stranger here. But when I went home 10 years ago, everyone had changed, just as I had, and many of my friends had too. Every day was worse than the last—I was a stranger there, too. And I came back here, and I am still a stranger here.”