This past April I traveled to Halifax to attend the Canadian Museum Association Conference. While there, I visited the Pier 21 Museum. I was interested in visiting this museum for two reasons. The first being that I wrote about Italian immigrant history for my Master's thesis. The second, and more personal reason, was that several of my family members took their first steps on Canadian soil in the building this museum now encompasses.
The guide took me through the exhibits and we stopped in a large narrow room with high windows overlooking the ocean. This was where the ships docked. It felt strange to stand on the exact spot my relatives stood long before. Even stranger was to reflect on how different our lives were. Standing in the same room we could not speak to each other, as some spoke Polish and others Italian.
Below I will recount the stories of my grandfather and grandmother, Stefano and Maria Teresa Bellissimo. Showcasing my family's story will highlight larger trends in Italian immigrant history. This discussion will ultimately lead me to answer why I, a second generation Canadian, still feel a connection to my Italian heritage.
Stefano and Maria Teresa Bellissimo
My grandfather (Nonno), Stefano Bellissimo, came to Canada from San Nicola da Crissa, Calabria, Italy in 1952. He arrived at Pier 21, as most immigrants did, before departing to Toronto. He left behind a wife and four children so he could secure employment in the New World. Stefano worked on the railroads near Timmins, sending money home; the family joined him a year later. My father was born after my grandparents reunited, and was the only family member born on Canadian soil. My Nonno spent his life working for the Toronto Transit Commission. My Nonna worked as a cook for York University (those lucky students!) Although Canada was now their home they clung to their Italian culture in a number of different ways. They:
Growing up, my father and his siblings spoke Italian at home, played with Italian school mates, and ate Italian food. I myself, was never taught the Italian language. I have since taken numerous conversation and translation courses on the subject, and can only hold a basic conversation. However, there were many other Italian cultural symbols that I was exposed to; I can safely say that I feel a connection to my Italian heritage.
But what does it mean to be "Italian"?
Throughout my research about Italian immigrants, I learned that historically Italians did not feel a connection to an "Italian" identity prior to their move to Canada; instead they identified with their hometowns. This was because Italy experienced unification in 1861 after centuries of political fragmentation and domination by successive Spanish, French and Austrian empires, who consistently struggled with both one another and the Papal States for control of what is now modern Italy. Due to the country’s recent formation, the idea of a pervasive national unity was still in its infancy at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century (much like Canada itself). This circumstance was largely the result of a socio-economic disparity between the country’s northern and southern regions. The north experienced heavier industrialization, while the south was primarily rural, relying heavily on agriculture. Many parts of the south lacked modern infrastructure, leaving many of the region’s peasants with a distinctly parochial worldview. This disparity resulted in the village being the primary source of identity for many of its citizens. For many of the rural peasantry, the village was the only “world” they had experienced. Many Italians, therefore, identified more with their paesani - fellow townspeople- than they did with being “Italian." I asked my father if my Nonna had ever visited other big Italian cities. He replied that she had not; the Italy she knew was her hometown of San Nicola da Crissa.
When Italians came to Canada, they held onto their roots by living close to their paesani. Chain resident patterns allowed immigrants and their children to remain surrounded by cultural symbols that were brought from Italy. Culture is shared and transmitted between generations through the use of language, myths, religion and other symbols, and these constitute a major component of how people choose to ethnically identify themselves. Donald Akenson, a historian of Irish immigration, explained that “ethnicity is a perduring cultural characteristic,” meaning that it has influence over future generations.
As Italians settled in Canada their identity changed. They were seen as the "other" by dominant society, resulting in the creation of a unified "Italian" identity. In other words, their identity developed in relation to what it meant to be "Canadian."
Unfortunately, because of the language barrier, I have never been able to ask my grandparents questions about how they identify themselves. However, a large picture of their hometown sits proudly on the wall of my aunt's house (who was born there), suggesting that their is a pride and yearning for the homeland. Exposure to Italian cultural symbols resulted in my deep fascination with Italian culture. So much so, that I dedicated two years to studying it in school. After graduation I spent a few months in Italy with my sister to attend language classes and to travel. I enjoyed the trip so much, and plan to go back multiple times in my life. Now if only I can get better at Italian cooking...
To read more about Italian Canadian identity, or for those interested in learning about Italian homesteaders in Saskatchewan, check out my thesis.
John Zucchi, Italians in Toronto: Development of a National Identity, 1875-1935 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988), 8
 Donald H. Akenson, Being Had: Historians, Evidence and the Irish in North America (Port Credit: P.D. Meany, 1985), 43.
Throughout my schooling in heritage, I have been presented differing and sometimes conflicting viewpoints about conservation. Initially, when I started my coursework, I dreaded taking the conservation course. As someone from an arts background, the idea of scientific material intimidated me. However, throughout my learning I uncovered that the science is just one facet of this complicated subject. In fact, there is a philosophical component that has presented itself throughout my readings that has come to intrigue me. This blog post will discuss some of these thoughts to present a more encompassing view of conservation. White Otter Castle will be used to illustrate the points addressed. For historical context, please refer to my blog post True North Strong: White Otter Castle.
For Present and Future Enjoyment
Conservation is an integral aspect of heritage and museum work. Conserving, protecting and restoring objects and buildings allows for their enjoyment by present and future generations. Engaging with historic objects helps to form a strong connections to place. Throughout my blog you will notice my numerous nods to the importance of visible history. Being able to hold an object or stand in a physical space evoke strong sensory reactions that makes it easier for a connection to be made. It also stokes the imagination. There have been many poets, for instance, who have sat on the shores of White Otter Lake recounting Jimmy's myth in verse. To be able to imagine him walking about the property touting 1600 pound logs, is more memorable than gleaning this information from a book. It is also a way of incorporating your own memories into the story, entangling the two into a new personal narrative. And what better way for children to become interested in history! I still remember my first visit to the local museum when I was four. They asked me to brush roving between two big paddled brushes. I thought that it was the coolest thing ever. I remember that for a week afterward I brushed cotton balls between my hair brushes. In my adult life I now spin my own yarn and knit. And it is safe to say I am also a history lover. This experience sparked my interest in both. If the museum did not preserve these artifacts, or this earlier way of life, perhaps I would not be spending my evenings with my drop spindle. Likewise, the standing Castle induces myth, stories, songs and poems. The story may very well have been lost to time, if not for this strong physical reminder.
Change as Part of an Object's Story
When I first stepped foot into White Otter Castle, I was appalled by the numerous signatures and markings throughout the structure. It has become somewhat of a tradition for visitors to add their name to Jimmy's walls. This can be thought of as an irresponsible act, especially considering that lots of money and time goes into periodic restoration projects. Didn't visitors want to help preserve the Castle? Don't they respect the myth the Castle tells? How could they want to deface a structure that has stood proudly in nature for all this time? However, these markings can be seen in a slightly different way. Everything in the world is in constant flux, or in other words, forever changing. This is true of stories, physical objects, ideas and people. If we are to accept that objects have dynamic and multiple layers of meaning, then we must accept that any additions (or subtractions) are incorporated into their story.
For White Otter Castle, this means that these markings are seen as adding themselves to the life of the structure; incorporating themselves into the mystique of the story. These names also speak to the idea of evanescence. People are penning their names down on a structure that will most likely stand longer than they will. It is a way for people to become part of Jimmy's story as well as let future visitors know that they have once stood there. Graffiti such as this also gives a physical reminder that White Otter Castle is a lively meeting space, drawing people from all over to share in its story. Seen this way, removing the names would alter the constantly and forever changing story of White Otter Castle. Heritage scholar, David Lowenthal paints this picture when discussing archaeological objects. He states: "Conservation, however careful, may destroy evidence vital to site or artifactual provenance or add taints that subvert authenticity or ambience." He goes on to say, "Marks of age and decay integral to every object need to be seen not just as losses but as gains. Esteeming evanescence can make us wiser and more caring stewards." 
Photographer and writer Clarence John Laughlin also finds life in old structures. When discussing abandoned Louisiana plantations he poetically surmises that:
In houses which are old- the forms of whose very walls and pillars have taken body from the thoughts of men in a vanished time- we often sense something far more delicate, more unwordable, than the customary devices of the romanticist: the swish of a silken invisible dress on stairs once dustless, the fragrance of an unseen blossom over the years, the wraith momentarily given form in a begrimed mirror. These wordless perceptions can be due only, it seems, to something still retained in these walls; something crystallized from the energy of human emotion and the activity of human nerves. And, perhaps, it is because of this nameless life of memory and desire and, correlatively, because of the superior power of suggestion, that, for those who are sensitive, the ruined houses have a fascination far exceeding that of the intact, and inhabited structures. 
His statement attributes a certain mystery and beauty to the abandoned and long-forgotten structures dotting the state. Like those individuals at the banks of White Otter Lake, he too finds poetic vision in the imagined past.
Ultimately, this discussion calls into question:
Conservation and Authenticity
If historical objects pass through various conservation processes are they still considered authentic? For instance, White Otter Castle has undergone various changes throughout its life, including:
Conservation is a more complex concept than just understanding basic scientific tests and principles. This blog post picked out just a few items to discuss amongst a plethora to choose from. Surprisingly, conservation ended up being one of my favourite heritage courses, and the information I learned informs everything I do in my museum work, from working with the collection, doing interpretive programming, or tackling ethical issues. I hope to continue to ponder the more philosophical aspects as well as learn more about the scientific practices in this field.
I will finish on a more contemplative note, with a quote from Lowenthal:
Our successors are better served by inheriting from us not a bundle of canonical artifacts but memories of traditional creative skills, institutions in good working order, and habits of resilience in coping with the vicissitudes of existence.[iv]
[i] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present." In Values and Heritage Conservation: Research Report. Los Angeles: Getty Trust, 2000, 19-20.
[ii] Clarence John Laughlin. Ghosts Along the Mississippi (New York: American Legacy Press, 1988), 7-8
[iii] Jim Mahon, Jim McQuat’s Castle: White Otter Lake, Architectural Report (Ministry of Natural Resources, 1972)
[iv] David Lowenthal. "Stewarding the Past in a Perplexing Present," 20.
Recently, my fiancée Adam and I visited the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historic Centre in Northwestern Ontario. This National Historic Site encompasses museum galleries and an interpretive tour of seventeen ancient burial mounds along the Rainy River shoreline. Over the last century the Ojibway people have called this land home. Before this, the Laurel and Blackduck traversed this area. Our tour guide specified that the mounds were between 300 and 900 years old, with the largest mound containing at least one hundred people. This impressive mound is the second largest in North America, next to one located in Minnesota.
While on the tour, our guide stopped at a particular mound stating that it was “still in progress.” In the 1960s, archaeologist and curator Walter Andrew Kenyon proceeded with a dig, removing seven bodies from a mound. These bodies were then sent to the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for study and display. Over twenty years after their removal, the bodies were repatriated back to the community. Another disruptive incident occurred when a gravel businessman operating on the property drove over one of the smaller mounds with his truck. The Ojibway community decided to incorporate the returned bodies, as well as those disturbed by the truck, into a new mound. Our guide asked us if we wanted to partake in the burial ritual, adding dirt from the old mound into that of the new. We agreed, and walked over to the site of the old mound. She told us to pick up the dirt with our left hand, as this is the hand closest to our heart. Normally in Ojibway tradition ceremonial spaces are approached in a clockwise fashion. However, because this ritual dealt with death and mourning we were asked to approach it in the opposite direction. We were given tobacco, a traditional offering, to mix with the dirt. Adam and I approached the new mound walking counter-clockwise, sprinkling the dirt on the mound.
As non-Aboriginal Canadians it was touching to be offered participation in this traditional, solemn ritual. This action allowed us to form a connection to the nature and land around us, to better understand Ojibway culture, to pay respects to those who came before us and to become involved in the site’s evolving history. Given the troubled history of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relations this symbolized a reconciliatory bridge between our two cultures and allowed both groups to share in a single Canadian history.
The Round House, a space used for ceremony, has nine walls to signify the nine bands that signed Treaty 3. The four cedar pillars in the centre represent the four directions. The sand on the ground is significant because Ojibway dancers believe that they should be connected to the earth. Thus, there is nothing between the sand and the earth below in this space.
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