I've spent much of this week thinking about what Canada would look like without its generations of desperately poor people who huddled onto crowded ships and made the journey to a country that did not welcome them with open arms. I wouldn't be here writing this story if some of those people hadn't attempted that crossing; perhaps you wouldn't be here reading it.
The pictures and stories from across the world are horrifying: migrants throwing their children across razor wire in Hungary, attempting to straddle moving trains in Calais, packed together on leaky boats, suffocating in the back of a truck. And, most unimaginable of all, the bodies of tiny Syrian refugees washed up on a Turkish beach. Thousands of people are taking wild risks every day in the hopes of waking up somewhere better tomorrow.
My paternal grandfather's journey to Canada wasn't that terrible. At least I don't think it was. I wish I'd asked him during one of the countless evenings we spent on the couch watching Fantasy Island and The Price is Right. He was eerily good at The Price is Right, and would yell at the TV screen in his thick Abruzzese accent, "Five hunnerd and sixty dollars! What are you, craz'?"
What I do know is that he arrived in a country that did not really want him, but benefitted immensely from his presence. His ship, the Arabic, docked at Halifax on May 7, 1927, when he was 31 years old. His name in Italian, Carmine, was anglicized to Charlie, and Charlie he remained for the rest of his life. He had no money and a Grade 4 education ("but the manners of a king," as my mother likes to say.)
What he was fleeing was grinding poverty in the hillsides of Abruzzo. What he found was a country that viewed him with suspicion: As later waves of Asians and Africans would discover, dusky-skinned newcomers with strange customs were a source of fear and anxiety. When he arrived, Italians were seen as anarchists who threw bombs; their religion was foreign and hostile. This may sound familiar, if you've been reading the news.
"As Southern Europeans, Italians had long since been considered far less desirable than the British, white Americans, and Northwestern Europeans who traditionally were Canada's preferred immigrants," writes Franca Iacovetta in her book Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto.
The Italian "peasant," wrote Laval Fortier, Canada's commissioner of overseas immigration, "is not the type we are looking for in Canada. His standard of living, his way of life, even his civilization seems so different that I doubt he could ever become an asset to our country." Think about that the next time you see someone on Facebook worrying about the foreign elements we're letting into the country. Or not letting in, which is more to the point.
And yet, because immigrants were needed to do the grunt work that was beneath everyone else, my grandfather was allowed to stay. In 1929, a year before Canada closed immigration to Italians, he returned to Italy to marry my grandmother and brought her back with him. (Immigration was reopened after the Second World War, but Canada understandably was even more suspicious then.)
During the war, in what has become a hilarious bit of family lore but probably wasn't so funny then, my grandparents took in lodgers at their Toronto house: a German man married to a Japanese woman. Every week, my grandparents had to report to a police station to prove that they weren't part of an Axis cell, accompanied by my father, who was a young child but the only one who spoke any useful English. If Bill C-51 had been in effect, the authorities could have saved the trouble and spied on them from afar.
My grandfather was a bricklayer; I like to think that he literally helped build the city I live in. There is a church near my house that he and the neighbourhood men built during their spare time, at the urging (i.e. arm-twisting) of the local priest. He and my grandmother bought a house and obeyed the laws assiduously. In his later years he sat on the front porch smoking Rothmans and drinking brandy, when he wasn't watching The Price is Right.
Growing up in Toronto, I was surrounded by immigrants, or their children. Everyone had a story like my grandfather's, often more poignant or dramatic. The father of a school friend was a Czech survivor of the Holocaust; another friend was the daughter of a Trotskyite cab driver who'd been expelled from Greece during the military dictatorship. I don't think we thought anything of it; it was just the fabric of Canada.
Looking at the acrimony and bitterness around the refugees we are refusing to welcome, even though we could and should, I wonder if that fabric isn't fraying. There's a gap in the future. We'll never know what we've missed, today or two generations from now.
On that note, I'm leaving you all for eight months. I'm going to be at Massey College at the University of Toronto on a Southam Journalism Fellowship. Like the Terminator, I'll be back. No fighting till then.