Irma Morgan is getting ready to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Roma Hall, a society that was instrumental in helping her integrate into Canada when she emigrated from Italy in 1953.
Back then, the hall was called the Italian Mutual Aid Society, and helped to settle new immigrant Italian families in Vancouver. Its purpose was similar to other important support organizations across the country that helped Italians settle into Canada largely in the early 1950’s.
“I came here with no language, no money and no idea about what to do. My friend Mr. Spanio brought me to the Italian Mutual Aid Society and I volunteered as a chef so I could be around Italian people,” said Morgan, an 80-year-old Vancouver resident.
Now as Roma Hall marks its anniversary, many in Vancouver’s Italian community are wondering whether the society and Canada’s multicultural policies have worked a little too well as settlement tools.
That is because Roma Hall is now largely a gathering place for Italian community events such as weddings, baptisms, Bocce tournaments, snooker games and wine stomping.
For Morgan and others, the connection with their Italian heritage has become limited to their last name and an affinity for Italian food.
Drish Velti, an 18-year-old third-generation Italian, agrees. “When I think of Italy, I think of gelato, espresso and beautiful girls. But to me Canada is home. This is where I was born and raised.”
Roma Hall president Rino Bellini is also concerned. “We’re not just about Lasagna. There is more to Italian people than just food and beverages. We have a whole culture and traditional values behind us,” Bellini said.
The hall opened its door in May 1929, with the efforts of a group of 27 families. Its goal, then and now, was to provide social and economic support for new Italians as they adapted to their new homeland. The challenge is that the number of new Italians has been decreasing to a trickle.
Italians are the 5th largest ethnic group in Canada following individuals of British, Irish, French and German origin. As of the 2006 census, 4.6 per cent of Canada’s total population self identified as Italian. The largest periods of migration occurred in 1950s, when the Italian-Canadian population climbed to the highest.
Italians moved to Vancouver through immigration waves in early 1800s and then in the early 1900s. In 1881, only 1,849 Canadians claimed to be Italian.
Vancouver’s first Little Italy emerged from the initial wave of Italian immigration to between 1900s and 1914. A large number of immigrants arrived in Canada due to poor economic situation in Italy.
This migration was largely halted by World War I, and new immigration laws in the 1920s limited Italian immigration. During World War II, Italian-Canadians, as well as German-Canadians, were regarded with suspicion and faced a great deal of discrimination.
In the 1960s, immigration laws were again changed, and the bias in favour of Europeans was removed. In the same period, Italy was rapidly growing in wealth, and by the early 1970s very few Italians were interested in emigration. Now, the migration pattern largely involves family reunification.
“I do not know of any new immigrants from Italy recently. The only immigrants now are reunifying members of existing Italian-Canadian families. I think Italian immigration died down in late 1960s and early 1970s,” said Bellini.
As immigration from Italy ceased and Italians have emerged as a successfully established community in Vancouver, Roma Hall has slowly changed roles because of the community’s new needs.
In his new book, Augie Fleras, a sociology professor at University of Waterloo questions the hidden agenda behind the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and the costs associated with the successful integration of immigrants into Canadian culture.
“To one side, Canada is widely regarded as the quintessential multicultural society; to the other side, multiculturalism is so woven into the fabric of peoples lives and Canadian society that few rarely stand back to question its assumptions or hidden agendas,” Fleras said, adding that the trade off involves immigrants often having to let go of their own traditions and values.
Other communities may face similar transitions. For example, at one point, the Italian Mutual Aid Society was integral to the Italian community – similar to settlement societies of recent immigrants such as the Taiwanese and the Bhutanese communities.
Now, Roma Hall organizers are taking pro-active measures to save and preserve culture among second and third generation immigrants and its 300 members.
“This is necessary not only for Italians but all immigrants coming to Canada. We want to be a part of the Canadian culture not apart from it,” Morgan said.
The Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver is also working to revive the sense of Italian culture in the Metro Vancouver area. It established a museum, il Museo, in fall 2008 with the participation of first generation Italian immigrants. It chronicles the history of Italian migration since the 1800s.
Caelan Griffiths, Curator of the museum, said he recognizes Italians are striving to hold onto their culture. “I see the third generation Italians more embedded in the Canadian culture which is great for Canada but not for preserving Italian heritage.”
Griffiths believes that he is a “perfect example” of Canadian multiculturalism in terms of her own background, which includes ancestry from Hong Kong and Ireland. He also speaks fluent Italian.
“I invite everyone to make donations whether they are Italian or not, if they have something that can help us tell the story of Italian immigrants and how they made their transition to become successful citizens of Canada,” Griffiths said.
For Bellini, this is all part of the process of making Italians more visible in the community once more.