National Column: Canada needs more of the world

by Rosie DiManno

At a certain point in life birthdays are to be endured rather than enjoyed – until they become enjoyable again, nearer the end of days and a whole bunch of things don’t much matter anymore.

Probably it’s not the same for nations. As life cycles go, Canada hasn’t even reached puberty yet. Though it cracks me up when chauvinists say the world needs more Canada. In truth, Canada needs more of the world. More entrepreneurs, more dreamers, more builders, more artists, more labourers. And more immigrants who will help pay off that astronomical debt we’re bestowing on our descendants.

Ordinarily, I would not waste breath promoting that Trudeau The First ideal of multiculturalism and diversity because it’s hardly unique to this country. I, as the daughter of immigrants, am more the melting pot sort.

If there’s one singular characteristic that differentiates Canada at 150 – but most especially Toronto of 2017 from the city in which I grew up – it’s the craving for distinct and eternal ethnic identities.

On the street where I lived, younger generations yearned to be part of the wider assimilated culture, unhyphenated and anglicized. It was an embarrassment to have parents who couldn’t speak English or spoke it in broken vernacular. Our houses smelled different, mostly because of the food we cooked. Now, of course, ethnic cuisine is a staple of pricey restaurants so that even pig slop like polenta can be ordered ‡ la carte.

In my house we butchered pigs, hung the porker upside down in the basement so the blood would run out to be mixed with flour and turned into flapjacks. Is that the same as blood pudding, that old English peasant vittle? (Not sure vittle can be properly used in the singular; English is my second language.)

Anyway, chop up the pig meat, put it through a sausage grinder and drape the links in front of the fire. Salt the prosciutto flanks, hang those in the wine cellar for next year. And speaking of wine, in early autumn the California grapes would be delivered, stacked on the front lawn. Thus would begin the arduous labour-intensive process of running the grapes through a hand-cranked crusher, transferring the mush to a wood-slatted bladder, swishing the strained juice between carboys and finally into oak barrels.

The whole neighbourhood reeked of fermentation.

Mortifying to me, all of it.

And now, sadly, lost knowledge, like slaughtering and preserving and fixing your own broken stuff.

We didn’t look or act remotely like the families I saw on TV sitcoms. It took a long time to realize those Hollywood families were chimeras, not even the four-square American families on which the fable was based were real. Took a while, too, before my childhood self realized that we weren’t living in America, engrossed as I was in programming broadcast by the U.S. networks out of Buffalo.

I wanted to be English and rejected everything that had a hint, or odour, of Italianness, of foreignness: the food, the traditions, the ethos of outsider. I wanted a father who worked in an office and would wear a suit instead of a construction belt. I wanted a mother who shaved her legs. Now, I just want my father back. To say: You were so much smarter than I appreciated.

Browsing through the immigrant exhibit at the Market Gallery the other day, I see men and women and children who look bewildered and shy upon their arrival in Toronto, part of the mass universal convulsion that followed both world wars, millions on the move. I wish there were photographs of my mother, who came to Canada with her sister in 1954, disembarking in Halifax and travelling by train to Union Station.

The only picture I have from that era was taken in Rome when she obtained a passport and visa. How anxious and lost they must have felt, hailing from a tiny mountain village outside Naples.

A couple of years ago, a Muslim woman from Pakistan won a court battle to keep her face covered with a niqab at her citizenship ceremony. I think my mother would have whipped off her dress and danced the tarantella for the privilege of citizenship. She had no concept of entitlement, no one who washed up on Canada’s shores back then did, and certainly no human rights industry to ease her way.

I’m not saying it was better then because it most emphatically was not. But it did have its virtues, those days.

My dad arrived a year later. He’d been a shepherd and sold his flock to book passage.

Within a year they’d married and bought their first house, on Grace St. That little home bulged at the seams as other newcomers from their village passed through, staying with us temporarily, mostly men who’d left their wives and children behind. At one point I distinctly remember 13 “lodgers.” It’s just what you did – extended a hand.

The pattern would be repeated in subsequent decades, with different ethnic groups, right through to the present.

The English looked down on the Irish, the Irish looked down on the Italians, the Italians would look down later on the Portuguese and the Koreans. And everybody looked down on Blacks, some of whom had been in Canada for generations. Shameful.

Oh how I pined to be indistinct and homogenized and the same. Died a thousand deaths when my mother came to school on parents’ night or struggled to communicate with a saleswoman at Eaton’s – but only on the very special occasions when a trip to Eaton’s was deemed absolutely necessary, like buying me my first typewriter.

All these years later, I hear teenage girls who were born here, first-generation Canadians, speaking their parents’ tongue on the streets and I wonder: How could you? Why would you?

My respect for the contribution of immigrants and refugees is boundless. But diversity, the on and on clinging to it, doesn’t make us stronger or particularly admirable. It makes us fragmented, ghettoized in thought and attitude.

I love our beautiful flag. I love the national anthem just as it is. I love the gorgeousness of this country from sea to sea.

On Canada Day, as every day, this is a fine country to call home. But don’t let us look down on the world, down on America – even with that fool man in the White House. Look outward Canada.

There’s a whole lot of wondrous world out there too.

Copyright 2017 and distributed by Torstar Syndication Services

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