June is Italian Heritage month in Canada and across the world. Metro Vancouver’s Italian community will be marking the occasion through numerous activities.
Locally, the Italian Cultural Centre (Il Centro) has been promoting Italian culture, heritage and values in Vancouver since 1977 through a myriad of initiatives and events, including traditional cooking classes and the Italian Film Festival.
Italian immigrants came to Vancouver in three big waves. Their choice to relocate in Canada was dictated mainly by economic reasons and was linked to huge social and political changes that were unfolding in their motherland.
“Most of them moved from the Veneto Region, which has Venice as a capital. Vancouver and Venice share similar weather, especially during winter, and a meaningful relationship with the sea. It can be said that a connection was established,” says Angela Clarke, Museum Curator at the Italian Cultural Centre.
The first wave hit Vancouver in the late 19th century, with people moving for work. Notably, among them the first Italian who ever came to Vancouver, Giuseppe Guasparri, who moved to the West after having heard stories of people building quick fortunes on gold and fur trades.
In the 1920s, the railway works picked up rapidly, attracting a vast Italian workforce that was needed to expand and maintain operations. After the Second World War, with their country reduced to ruins, many Italians were forced to move to the Vancouver area in hopes of a better future.
Since then, the combination of better opportunities in Italy and stricter Canadian immigration laws have reduced Italian immigration to Canada, and Vancouver in particular.
“What we have noticed is that Italians still immigrate to Vancouver in small numbers. They usually have a good education and enjoy living here, but they find the immigration process so long and challenging that sometimes they opt for other countries such as Australia,” Clarke explains.
Down the generations
While the first generations tried to settle down in the new country by relying mainly on railway and construction jobs, the second envisioned education as a way to make their way up the social ladder and invested accordingly. The hype about Italian fashion and food was far from the reality at that time.
“In truth, some of them started their own businesses such as grocery stores and interior décor firms even at the early stages of the Italian immigration to Vancouver, setting the stones for a contribution that would have become later much more intense and fruitful,” says Clarke.
The third generation of Italian-Canadian looks at their heritage from a different perspective. The Italian community is well established in the city mosaic and has been drawing the attention of many Vancouverites who like a rich and faceted culture that ranges from food to arts and cars to fashion. The challenge is to keep the Cultural Centre, designed to meet the community needs of the late 1970s, capable of speaking to the new generations while preserving the heritage.
Broadening the spectrum is the approach the Centre is taking to move forward in the Vancouver cultural scene. Initiatives like community gardening, the Performigrations exhibits and jazz concerts show the will to play an active role in the community and in the cultural debate.
“The goal of the local gardening project is to raise awareness, especially among young generations on the importance of protecting the environment and growing good natural food. Kids can realize how nature works and build knowledge about keeping a healthy diet.” Lorenzo Schober, Communications Coordinator at the Italian Cultural Centre explains.
The Centre museum currently hosts an exhibit by Shelley Stefan, who explores genders by adapting medieval European coats of arms to the lesbian identity in Vancouver.
For information visit, www.italianculturalcentre.com