Opening Statement



Monday, 1 August 2011

Good Toronto Boy!

A good Toronto boy? Yup! That's me. Once a University of Toronto professor asked our huge politics class to put up our hand if we were actually born in Toronto, as he made some academic point. There was only myself and maybe one or two other people. To bolster my Torontonian claim, I still even live in the part of the city where I was born; Weston. That's what it says on my birth certificate and here I now sit on my balcony overlooking Weston Road, in what was once known as Weston, before the whole of the Greater Toronto Area [GTA] was amalgamated into one big city back in the 1990's.

At one time or another I have lived all across the city, always accept once in the west end. There's an important city distinction here; if you are Toronto born and bred you pretty much stay in either the east or the west end, Yonge Street being the dividing line. There are parts of Toronto east of Yonge Street where I can still get lost and have no idea where I am unless I use my GPS for directions.

My wife Janet is also Toronto born and bred, raised downtown in Little Italy and later out near Weston in Downsview, where the old military airfield base was once located. She's third generation Canadian, I'm second but neither of us consider ourselves hyphenated Canadians. Contrary to another old norm, I don't think of myself as being Italian-Canadian, although my last name is definitely Italian. It comes from my grandfather on my dad's side of our family. Nor does Janet consider herself Japanese-Canadian, even though her great grandfather Fujiwara came here from Japan.

I've got plenty of Italian relatives in Woodbridge [not to be confused with Woodsbridge], and Maple, north of the city. This is the new "Little Italy". Everybody made their money and moved out of the city proper. Many are still  unilingually Italian, but that's mostly the old folk, truth be known. We'd see and visit them when I was growing up, but nowadays it's mostly at weddings and funerals. My family were Ottawa Valley Chiarellis, from Renfrew a small town along the Ottawa River between the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Then there are the Toronto Chiarellis; they came from Italy and stayed here.

I suppose in that sense I'm a first generation Torontonian. I can still wax nostalgically about the Ottawa Valley where we often visited and even lived later on for a bit in the Chalk River Atomic Energy bedroom community of Deep Diver. That's a lot of river names I know, but I digress. For now let's just say my family always considered Ottawa Valley's rolling hills, farmlands and thick forests to be God's Country, and indeed my father and grandparents are buried there on a hill side overlooking the river.

My grandfather Toby came from Italy to Montreal Quebec to seek his fortune as a young boy at age twelve, staying with family friends and learning his trade as a cobbler. He then moved to Renfrew Ontario to set up a little shoe shop, buy a small house and raise his family. There were two Italian stores, the Italian fruit, vegetable and grocery mart and the shoe shop both within the same street block. Renfrew had a small Italian community which was considered quite ethnic at the time what with our strange accent and Mediterranean skin tone. By the time World War Two broke out, my grandfather had lived and raised his family for most of his life in Renfrew. Still he was pretty badly treated. He hadn't done poorly during the Great Depression. Everybody of course needed shoes and would go to him to get them made and then repaired time and again, back when they were still solid leather. You'd think he'd have been well known and considered a good, long standing member of the community. By all accounts he'd been very helpful and decent to everyone during the hard times with his modest good fortune. Still, when Canada joined Great Britain to declare war on Germany and the Axis Powers of Italy and Japan at the outset of World War Two, you would never have known it.

Because of his Italian heritage a mob marched on his shoe shop and smashed the windows, vandalizing the walls with war slogans. Then they marched on the family homestead and trashed it looking for the "secret radio transmitter" which they figured he must have to send Renfrew's no-where-ville's secret war information to Benito Mussolini back in Italy. Afterwards he had to report to city hall once a week for questioning, for the duration of the war. Since he'd fixed the shoe shop folks began coming back again to get their shoes repaired, but were watching him very carefully. Totally absurd.

My grandfather had few ties with the homeland, communications not being what they are today, except for the steady stream of Chiarelli's who immigrated to Canada from Italy especially after the war. They mostly settled in Toronto. He remained stoic about his lot, and was always able to support his family. He remained a part of the small Italian community who's life was all pretty much bound, as per tradition, around the local Catholic church. The mark of respect was to live an upright life and put your kids through school so they could do better. The boys became teachers, and the girls nurses, in our families case with the added bonus that neither had any shoe shops to be attacked should European troubles ever again threaten our shores. My aunt became a nurse, my dad and his brother teachers. Although I rebelled against it at first I later became a teacher too. My niece Katie worked a short time at a shoe store without much grief but is now entering teacher's college, and so the family tradition continues.

As for my father? Growing up we did not speak Italian. We made raviolis but ordered pizza. My last name Chiarelli begins with the Canadianized Sh not Ke pronunciation, unlike the traditional Woodbridge and Maple Chiarelli's. I have the blustery Italian characteristics of talking loud and gesturing alot with my hands. I can be known to make jokes about being part Italian but not saying what part. But other than that?

I was born in Toronto, I live in Toronto, but I do teach at a Catholic school. I order pizza sometimes on t.v. night, but quite frankly prefer going out to a Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, Mexican  or Japanese Restaurant. Give me super spiced curry, a roti, taco or falafel any day! I don't particularly care for soccer, nor do I hang a set of Boccie balls or furry dice from the rear view mirror in my car. I do have my scuba licence. I love to travel around Canada, the US, and Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean but I have never been to Italy. We do still own the family homestead there, outside Roma, which we can all visit, but most all of our family lives somewhere in Canada or the United States now.

Janet and I recently bought a condo in a two hundred and something unit high rise on Weston Rd. It's a very ethnically diverse building where most everyone is quite friendly and works, though not everyone speaks English, and I doubt if some of them have been in Canada for more than a few years. We all get along fine. The Hindu family even puts up a Christmas tree. The tiny little Asian girls are closely supervised and very polite and sweet. The little old Italian guy always winks and whispers "Don't worry, we've got you covered!". He and the two or three other Italians in our building always come out to vote for me every year at the condo board election, otherwise I never see them except on the elevator. I think the others vote for me because they like that I am a teacher, which often seems to be very well respected, perhaps a lot more so than here, in the many countries they come from. And on Canada Day the middle eastern family proudly hangs a huge Canadian flag from their balcony.

Toronto nowadays is one of, if not the most culturally diverse city in the world. We see it at school a lot with the constantly changing immigration waves from around the world. It seems to me that as each new group arrives they become like the new kid on the block. Are we prejudiced to strangers? I once saw a Muslim family having their car torn apart while each of them was thoroughly searched at the Canadian border. I was waved through with but a friendly nod. Perhaps this is a far cry from what happened to our families, but really isn't it very prejudiced all the same?

There are still predominantly ethic neighbourhoods across our city, from the Greek Danforth, to Chinatown, Little Italy, the Jane-Finch Corridor and the so called Jungle. We know Spadina Avenue use to be the Jewish ghetto before it became predominantly Asian. However, I suspect any prejudice is relatively minimal considering the incredible diversity of people here now. As each new group arrives, they eventually establish themselves, and then spread out across town, for the most part joining into the mix, or buying up new suburbs which inevitably end up becoming mixed too. 

The student body at my school at Finch and Keele has changed many, many times since I first arrived there in 1992. First it was predominantly Italian, then Polish, Latin American, Middle Eastern, African, Caribbean, Asian, and now Philippine. During periods of rapid influx, it has been incredibly mixed. I once polled a social science class on our family origins. In our class of 28 students, we could colour in 26 countries on the world map. That included both the mother and fathers sides of their family of course.

Like many Torontonians I am in a mixed marriage, if we can call it that. My wife Janet is third generation Canadian. Her family came over long before WW2 as well. In their case they fared a lot worse. All their property in British Columbia, including a lot of farmland and a hotel in downtown Vancouver was seized after the attack on Pearl Harbour when the Japanese-Canadians were rounded up and put into internment camps. After the war, they were given a choice. They could go back to Japan but hardly knew anyone there. The country had also basically been destroyed. Or they could come east to Toronto and work as domestics until they could establish themselves all over again. Unlike in the US, they were not given back their property nor compensated for its value. Few would hire or even rent a home to them, except the Jewish and the Italians, because of the war. Now Toronto has a large Asian, if not Japanese population, and it seems a moot point. Like myself Janet would hardly stand out and I am not aware of either of us being called racial names or otherwise denigrated for a good many years.

Other than her pure Asian features, which I find quite alluring, I can't say Janet is outwardly very Japanese, no more so than I am Italian. We do eat more rice than potatoes, drive a Honda and a Toyota, avoid mentioning Pearl Harbour at her family gatherings or telling anybody her Japanese name. We like going out for sushi or some spiced dishes in Chinatown if we are down that way. She has big Fujiwara family gatherings [though not as large as on the Toyota side] where nobody except the elderly who often live to ninety speak Japanese, and then only very rarely at that. Most everybody has good jobs and nice homes across the city and out in the suburbs.

Perhaps WW2 had a big effect on both our families which we indirectly feel today, with an emphasis on mixing and fitting in. If so it is fairly subtle. Neither of us particularly stand out anyway in the very diverse mix of Toronto today.This could well have become ingrained for our generation, our children perhaps less so. As they grow older they show an increasing interest in learning more about their heritage, something we have often seemingly neglected or forgotten for more or less two generations now.

Mixed cultures, neighbourhoods, marriages and schools are perhaps a very Torontonian characteristic, in a city were their is no distinct identity except in our diversity. I suppose someday it may gel into a hybrid all it's own. When we were born Toronto was a small very English city of five hundred thousand people tops, compared to the two and a half million living here today. I've noticed some local traits, and have mentioned them in my blogs on occasion. I wouldn't be surprised if this new hybrid identity is starting to emerge all ready.

It's sort of like having an accent. We might not recognize it as being different because we live here. Other folk from elsewhere have an accent it seems but not us! In fact, our English is more curt like Queens English perhaps due to our provincial heritage, but with a fair mix of American slang and euphemisms due to our proximity with the US border. While we usually don't seem to have the same drawl, if you listen carefully over time you might hear locals pronounce our city name as "Tarawna", not Toronto, although I think folks have become a lot more self conscious of that and less likely to speak so nowadays.There is a distinct propensity to end our sentences with "eh?" and I don't mind being referred to as a "Canuck" when we are travelling abroad since we are from Canada eh?

I suppose this posting is more interesting to my readers from outside Toronto or for that matter Canada. I'd be interested to hear from any local readers about their spin on this, as I can only speak from my own life experience. This is the Summer Edition of my blogspot, so I find it rather interesting to tackle such topics and provide more background info on where I am coming from, and where I am at. It's not directly school or union related, not here and now anyways, but we do teach in Toronto.

I sometimes wonder how the Italian angle plays out for me in our TSU teacher union political activities. I know that at the executive table others have sometimes born the brunt of the loud bluster from my odd Italian moment when the old arms get waving in the air, and my words can be quite blunt. I am not sure, in the political sense, whether that is necessarily good or bad. I can certainly make my point known in no uncertain terms, even if it is lacking in a calm polite tone. That is considered more socially acceptable, especially here in Toronto, Canada, where nobody likes to ruffle any feathers even though they sometimes desperately need a ruffling. It can be considered unsettling and rude. It can also well emphasis, if not overtly so, an important point that needs to be made, as my gruff Italiano side rises to the surface. Some folks will tell me, "Well thank God, it had to be said!!", while others will say, "But not like that!" Anyway, it gets the job done.

When it comes election time, I know the Toronto side of my identity will not be a big draw for those who will always vote for the Italian candidate just because they are Italian too. One can, and many candidates do play the Italian card. Look around and you might see some Bella Donna's or would be godfathers running around appealing to these sentiments, which can be a significant vote. Hey, I can say this, I am Italian too, but I don't think many voters check off my name just because it's Italian, since I don't play it up. Likewise since most voters aren't Italian, that probably doesn't seem to hurt me either.

For the last five years I've mostly been on an election winning streak. Maybe to be a hyphenated Italian would boost my margin? On the other hand, maybe our ethnic backgrounds aren't necessarily either a big draw or a hindrance in our changing Toronto cultural landscape anymore. I like to think there are more progressive and metropolitan teachers such as myself who would much rather look beyond these limited interests and considerations. We want to better reflect and represent the diverse and inclusive interests of our teacher's union and schools. After all we are first and foremost Canadians in Toronto, not Italy, Japan, Europe, Asia, Africa, the middle east or where have you. Certainly our teaching world in Toronto has become a lot more wider and all encompassing than that!

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