Presenting – Maria Minna – An Italian-Canadian Immigrant Story and a Life-Long Fight for Justice

Every Canadian neighbourhood is officially represented at three different levels: the municipal, provincial and federal levels. As far as the Beach neighbourhood is concerned I had already had a chance to get to know the municipal representative, City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Sandra Bussin, and the Provincial Member of Parliament, Michael Prue. I was really looking forward to meeting the Federal Member of Parliament for the Beaches / East York Riding: Maria Minna.

Maria and I met in a small local Chinese restaurant called the Honeybee. This restaurant, located right across from the Beaches Library, has been around forever, and on this Saturday afternoon we sat down for a nice late lunch. Maria started to tell me about her background and disclosed that she was born in a small town called Pofi not far from Rome. She spent the first nine years of her life in Italy and grew up on a farm. She refers to her childhood as privileged, since she grew up with holistic food, such as home-grown grapes, fruits and cherries. Her parents were also raising chicken, rabbits and pigs for their family’s needs. Maria used to go to school for a half day, and would do chores in the afternoon. Her parents would take wheat to the mill and come back with bags of whole wheat flour. Even after many years in Canada, Maria’s mother would never buy canned or frozen vegetables.

In 1957 Maria arrived at 9 years of age at Pier 21 in Halifax together with her mother and siblings. None of them spoke any English. Her father had already been in Canada. A little anecdote from Maria’s arrival in Canada illustrates the initial culture shock: on the train to Toronto her mother wanted to buy some bread for her children, but was only offered white Wonderbread type of bread. Her mom had a look at the loaf and said “This is not bread.” Until the end of her mother’s days, white bread was only good for toast.

After two days and nights on the train through the snow her mother was wondering where her father had taken them. Maria admitted that the first few years were tough: she did not speak any English, and had to leave her friends in Italy behind. Her dog was also left behind and died of heart break. At the beginning she had difficulty in school because she did not speak any English. She was put a year back in school, had to learn only basic math and had to write in a pencil again. In Italy she had already been writing with a fountain pen. In grade four she finally skipped a grade and recouped one year. Her mother was illiterate and worked in a factory while her father worked in construction. This was a time when there were very few health and safety standards for workers, particularly immigrant workers. Italian children were regularly streamed into vocational schools with lower academic standards. Even as recently as 1987 only 7 % of Italian children went to university.

Maria enlightened me a bit more about the fate of Italian immigrants years ago. During the war many Italian-Canadian men were arrested and detained at the Petawawa military camp. Although they were Canadian citizens their property was often sold for one or two dollars. Italians were declared enemy aliens and fingerprinted. When Maria arrived, some of the earlier Italian immigrants did not want to deal with the new arrivals; they wanted to blend into Canadian society and not get noticed. Italian men and women were often exploited, and their health was put in danger as they often had to work in inhumane conditions.

When the Toronto subway was built there was a major accident at an area called Hogs Hollow, just south of York Mills Road. Maria explained that five Italian men were buried alive under the Don River. The city person in charge had no idea of construction. Many Italian immigrants worked in jobs that required heavy physical labour and were at a high risk of injury. When they experienced an accident, Workers Compensation would treat them like a piece of meat, and compensate them according to the “meat chart” (they would not receive benefits based on the severity of their disability). Many men suffered a broken back and would be diagnosed with “degenerated disk disease”, a diagnosis that would minimize their claim entitlements, and they were simply encouraged to get a light job.

A tough immigrant story unfolded during Maria’s first few years in Canada: she went to a Catholic Elementary school and her brother had a learning disability, and started to work at age 16. Maria on the other hand took a commercial course at age 18, having worked part time through high school, So Maria started to work as a secretary and helped to pay for her sisters’ education and even paid off one of her parent’s mortgages on the family home.

Maria added that she has always had to carry several responsibilities at the same time. Ever since her parents came to Canada Maria had to become their interpreter and the administrator of family affairs once she had command of the English language. She also helped her parents and other immigrant neighbours with their income tax returns and generally managed the family’s affairs. Up until the recent deaths of both her parents, Maria was overseeing their responsibilities, and when she was giving her father’s eulogy in February of 2006 she realized that now her job was actually done. This funeral was going to be the last responsibility that she had to handle on behalf of her parents. From age ten onwards Maria had been shouldering many family responsibilities including starting dinner, making lunch for her dad and brother, stripping floors and doing housework. In retrospect she says that she never really had a childhood; she does not recall ever really having play time as a child in Canada.

To earn more money Maria also did modeling for three years from age 19 to 22. She quit her secretary job since she realized that modeling was more lucrative. This helped her pay her parents’ mortgage off more quickly and allowed her to save money for university. She could achieve these financial goals much faster as a model.

At age 24 she finally started her academic studies: she enrolled in a sociology program at the University of Toronto in 1972, so began her fight for social justice. Early on she got involved in municipal issues. She noticed that the Annex neighbourhood had more infrastructure funding from the municipal government while her neighbourhood in the west end near Ossington and Christie, a mostly immigrant neighbourhood, received very few municipal projects. Maria explained that the people in her neighbourhood never asked for any money to get their streets fixed; they were actually under the impression that their taxes would go up if they asked for more resources from the city, so they never even tried.

Always interested in social justice issues, Maria got involved as a volunteer and community activist. She felt that immigrant communities were being treated differently and action was needed. In 1974 she was offered to work on a special project at a local organization named COSTI Immigrant Services, which today is a community-based multicultural agency providing employment, educational, settlement and social services to all immigrant communities, new Canadians and individuals in need of assistance.

More than 30 years ago Maria was hired as part of a summer program to establish a women’s centre specifically targeted at Italian women in the Jane and Finch area. A federal election was being run right around that time, and Maria got a call from Paul Hellyer, a Conservative politician who was formerly a Liberal, to help him with the federal election. Maria did not want to work with this individual and said “If I do this kind of work I’ll do it for free for a Liberal candidate”. So she called Aideen Nicholson, a Liberal candidate, but did not get a call back. A few days later Aideen showed up at her door and said “we need you”.

Maria was helping former Prime Minister Trudeau with his campaign when he was coming through local Toronto neighbourhoods to canvass door to door. She would go ahead of him and get people’s names and introduce them to the Prime Minister. At the end of the election she accepted a job with the new Member of Parliament, Aideen Nicholson. This was right about the time when she was headed into her third year at U of T.

Her job was to look after people’s problems, help them with immigration issues and Workers Compensation. Maria got involved with the Liberals and turned out to be a good campaign manager. After graduating from her sociology degree Maria started consulting in public policy and management. She continued volunteering for COSTI and in 1981 she was elected as President of the Board of Directors.

From 1974 to 1992 Maria volunteered with COSTI Immigrant Services and was the President of COSTI’s Board of Directors for 11.5 years. Maria’s interest in multicultural issues has always been strong, and Maria lobbied hard for the Canada Multiculturalism Act, a piece of legislation for the preservation and enhancement of multiculturalism in Canada.

With the help of the Women’s Legal Education Fund Maria helped launch a Charter challenge on behalf of immigrant women. They were not given English as a Second Language training simply because they were women, and the expectation was that they were going to take on only menial jobs anyways. Maria added that in effect these policies were shutting women up. As a result she launched a challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights in 1986 for group discrimination and won. From that point forward immigrant women became eligible for English as a Second Language training programs. Maria fought numerous wars on behalf of immigrants and refers to herself as a “shit disturber”.

In 1992 she was elected as the President of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, a duty which she gladly accepted. A year later, Jean Chretien asked her to run in the Federal Election and Maria agreed. It was weird seeing her name on a brochure. Maria hated asking people for money or to vote for her; this simply felt awkward to her. But then she thought the only way to fight for people would be to get elected, so she accepted a necessary evil.

Once in parliament she pushed hard for a national child care policy, and the Child Tax Credit. She was part of the humorously nicknamed “Tax the Rich Committee” which instituted the National Child Benefit for low-income families. Maria often visits schools and talks to children about governance. One child pointed out that this money helped his mother buy milk and food.

Maria Minna has strong opinions: she supports a public health care system 100% and will never accept a hybrid system. She feels it’s a slippery slope once you start privatizing a certain part of the health care system. Some time ago she was hosting a delegation of Italian politicians who could not believe that wealthy people and regular or even low-income Canadians would go to the same doctors and sit in the same waiting rooms together.

In her Beaches – East York riding, some of the achievements that Maria has provided for the area include the Main Square Community Recreation Centre, which included $5 million of federal funds that were matched by the city. In addition, Maria obtained federal funding for a series of overflow waste water retainer tanks along the Boardwalk which were part of a federal infrastructure investment program. In total Maria has brought about $25 million of federal funding into her riding.

The life of a politician can be surprisingly tough: Maria spends Monday to Thursday or sometimes Monday to Friday in Ottawa, in the House of Commons, attending committee and caucus meetings. For the weekends she returns to Toronto to attend weekend events in her riding and to interact with her constituents. She explained that her job has no downtime – you are on call 24 hours 7 days a week. She continued that there is no point getting into politics if you are not willing to accept this schedule.

As far as Canada’s political system is concerned, most politicians come from a broad variety of professions. Maria clearly expressed that she feels that Canada is a very successful 21st century nation. Canada has one of the most transparent electoral processes. Even geographically close countries such as the United States and Mexico have had persistent issues with election scandals while Canada has not been tainted by such problems at all. Although the population is sometimes cynical about politicians, from Maria’s experience, the vast majority of them, regardless of party affiliation, has good intentions. Naturally she feels very supportive of the Liberal party, and states that in 13 years of Liberal rule, Canada changed from a country on the verge of bankruptcy with more than 11% unemployment into one of the most successful developed nations.

Maria added that she feels that the long-running Liberal government turned the country around, started to systematically lower the deficit and the unemployment rate and created thousands of new jobs based on building a strong infrastructure and making investments in the nation. An Innovation Fund was established for new technologies and to create 1000 chairs of research at universities throughout Canada. Centres for Health Research were created to invest in people and their health. Maria expresses very clearly that you cannot just cut taxes without reinvesting the money into the country and its people.

Unfortunately, Maria says, there was a change in government, and when the Liberals lost the election in 2006 they handed over a very healthy economy. She added that the new Conservative government has proceeded to decimate the National Childcare Program, they have cut the Innovation Fund, and she deplores that they have taken away the mandate from the “Status of Women” in Canada since the Conservatives feel that Canadian women already have equality, even though they still only earn 70 cents to the dollar.

In addition to some of these serious issues we also had a chance to discuss more everyday type of topics. One of Maria’s favourite pastimes is to stroll along Queen Street, buy presents and cap a nice outing off with a coffee, tea or breakfast. On a nice summer day she likes to sit by the lake on a rock, which makes her feel like she is on holidays. The many events that happen on Queen Street East also entice Maria to come out, and there are a whole host of them: School Spring Fairs, community centre festivals, church bazaars, in addition to the big flagship events: the Beaches Jazz Festival, the Easter Parade and the Christmas Tree Lighting. During last year’s Yard Sale for the Cure, Maria came out to meet some of the people who participated and thanked them for supporting this important cause.

Maria was also part of a recent tree planting in the Glen Stewart Ravine that was held in honour of Bob Hunter, Toronto’s most well-known environmentalist who passed away recently. Other initiatives that Maria really appreciates are Movies at the Fox: free outings to movies organized and sponsored by the Beach Rotary Club. At Christmas there is a big party for seniors, and after a free movie all the seniors head to St. Aidan’s Church where Quigley’s Bar and Bistro generously sponsors a lunch for 300 people.

Another important community organization that Maria wholeheartedly supports is Neighbourhood Link/Senior Link, a non-profit social service agency that provides services primarily in east Toronto. Since 1975, with the assistance of over 500 volunteers and 160 staff, this organization helps more than 6500 people annually. Maria was instrumental in getting this organization up and running by connecting Senior Link, which had been focusing exclusively on elderly residents, with COSTI, one of Toronto’s foremost immigrant settlement organizations.

Together these agencies were going to provide employment and job search services. Today Neighbourhood Link has become even more comprehensive and offers a variety of health and caregiver services, housing and employment services as well as social recreation services. Maria mentioned that SeniorLink’s response to the blackout in 2003 was phenomenal: they contacted more than 1000 seniors who were known to be on oxygen, and delivered backup power generators, flashlights and candles to them to make sure that they could stay healthy and safe. Maria added that there are a number of great organizations in the neighbourhood that make this community work.

Our lunch was finished and we headed off on one of Maria’s favourite activities: a stroll along Queen Street to check out some of the eclectic shops that provide a really diverse range of goods and services. On a nice Saturday afternoon with temperatures that had finally come up above Arctic levels, we headed east on Queen Street from the Honeybee. The first store we popped into was Latitude for Living, an eclectic design and home d├ęcor retail store. Right next to Latitude is Kids at Home, a store that features blankets, strollers, duvet covers, daybeds and many more items needed by young families, many of whom consider the Beach their favourite neighbourhood to relocate to.

Just a bit further east we headed into Pippins Tea Company Inc., where we met the owner Barbara DeAngelis and her assistant Tamsin Salter. Pippins is an old time tea shop that carries a wide assortment of teas, tea wares, tea cuisine, kitchenware and gifts. It reminded me a bit of an old-style drug store with its wooden counters and canisters full of tea.

Our next stop was a funky boutique called Boa which features colourful dresses and stylish tops. The young owner Ofra Nissani inquired whether there was any way she could get involved in tree planting and other environmental issues in the area, and Maria recommended her to connect with Alex Winch, a big environmentalist in the Beach.

Maria’s time was running out since she had to head back to her constituency office for another meeting, but we had time for one more stop: we popped into the Antik Bazaar where owner Joseph Edwards was a little shy at first, but then opened up and told us that his antiques and collectibles store was recently selected by mystery shoppers and featured in a beautiful colour book called “Treasures of Ontario Mystery Shoppers”. His partner Sharon Iseman came in shortly after and we had a chance to connect with her as well. Many of the items in this store reminded Maria of her mother-in-law’s house, who used to be an avid collector herself. We even briefly talked about the Beach Hebrew Institute, and gave Sharon instructions how to get there since as son is currently looking for a synagogue in Toronto’s East End.

It was time to get going and I gave Maria a quick ride to her constituency office just up the road on Danforth Avenue. We had a good time talking about Italian culture and language, particularly since I am considering doing an international travel assignment to the South of Italy in the near future. The last couple of hours had been great; I had connected with a like-minded individual who for decades has been a strong advocate for social justice, equal rights and protection for society’s most vulnerable, and we had a chance to enjoy some of the lovely window-shopping opportunities that Queen Street East offers on a sunny Saturday afternoon.