Dominion is a small town of approximately 2,000 people in Cape Breton Island. It overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and is only a fifteen-minute drive from Sydney. The first time I visited the town was in January 2009. It was a dark evening, and snow banks lined both sides of the road. From the car window, there wasn’t much to see. My friends John and Connie deRoche, who were studying at Cape Breton University at the time, invited me to attend their Wednesday night Italian class with them.
When we arrived at the Italian Hall, I was drawn to the place and wanted immediately to go inside. Upon entering, I saw that it was empty. I thought that maybe class had been cancelled because of the weather; that would have been a big disappointment. All of a sudden, from a back door, the prof, Leo appeared, wearing his “Italia” cap. He welcomed us and took us to the kitchen at the back of the hall, where the other students were waiting. I was briefly introduced and then class started.
There were about 10 students, all sitting around the kitchen table, reading and translating from an old Italian textbook. The class did not last very long; soon books were closed and the attention turned to me. Leo asked me to tell the class a little about myself and explain why I was there. Before moving to Edinburgh in 2008, I had lived in Nova Scotia for about four years. While at Saint Francis Xavier University, conducting research toward the completion of my PhD, I taught evening Italian classes. Some of my students were from Cape Breton Island; it was by talking to them after class that I discovered an Italian population on Cape Breton Island. I was told that there was quite a community in Dominion, and that this community had come from my native province of Treviso, otherwise known as “la bella marca,” in the northeast of Italy. I was very intrigued and decided that I needed to visit.
And so there I was, inside Dominion’s Italian Hall, having a conversation with some of the members of the community. And it was true, they were from Treviso. Leo and Luigia were speaking half English and half dialect and reminiscing about the good old days, including an amusing incident about the killing of a pig that had taken on legendary proportions. It could not get any better for me: here I was, all the way from Scotland in this tiny village by the ocean, among people who could speak my own dialect. And we were talking about the killing of the pig as if it were yesterday, while on the table was good homemade wine, bread, salami, cheese and coffee. I was in heaven!
Before we left, Leo took me back to the main entrance of the hall. On the wall was a large frame with the names and photos of the founding fathers of the Italian community and the hall. I looked at the passport-sized pictures of elegant men in suits, ties and hats; so many of them reminded me of my grandfathers in their best attire, ready to go to church or perhaps to the osteria for a few glasses of wine and some games of scopa. I skimmed the names and my heart leapt – they were all so familiar. Among those listed was a Mr. Gatto. When I was a child in Italy, my mother used to take me to her favourite shoe store run by a Mrs. Gatto. Casagrande was another familiar name. I went to school with a boy whose last name was Casagrande. Zorzi. There are innumerable stories about Zorzi, my family’s plumber, who never made an appointment on time. Piva. In high school I had the most wonderful French teacher and his last name was Piva. Canova. I recalled a school trip to Possagno where we admired and studied the works of Antonio Canova. I wondered if they were at all related. I felt an immediate connection to all those names, so familiar because I grew up with their sounds all around me.
I left elated with the hope that I would be able to come back to Dominion very soon. And I did. Twice. The first time was the following summer, and the second time was last July. During these visits I gathered the stories of the Italian community. Fieldwork has always been a preoccupation for me, and in this case, I was extremely focused on conducting interviews with individuals with whom I had really connected. But I worried that they did not feel that connection in return and that our shared heritage did not really mean anything to them. I didn’t want them to think I was in Dominion just to harvest information. It had worried me when I arrived in the summer of 2009. I wondered if they would remember me at all.
Well, they did. I met all of the students from Leo’s class, I saw Luigia again and met many other people. I learned a lot that first summer, and even though I did not interview many people, I still spoke to a lot of second- and third-generation Trevigiani who told me how their families had come to Dominion. In Italy, their grandfathers and fathers were mostly farmers who’d had trouble making ends meet and feeding their families. They had come to Dominion during the 1920s and 30s to work in the coalmines. Some came to stay, others came only to earn money to take back home, and still others travelled back and forth several times.
I have tried to imagine, walking the streets of Dominion, how life must have been during those years. Everyone, Italians and non-Italians, speak of those immigrants as indefatigable workers who saved every penny to build their houses. They raised chickens, pigs and cows, opened candy and corner stores and prospered. Oral accounts indicate that at one point, there were 150 to 200 families of Italian origin in Dominion, mostly from the Treviso area, making it the largest Italian community east of Montreal. It was a strong and tight community that pivoted around the Italian Hall, which was built by the Italians themselves in 1936.
It was the meeting point for its members, their families and friends. Innumerable events and activities were organized by the hall’s members: picnics with music, dances, food and games (including the challenge of climbing the greasy pole, a clear duplication of a local traditional sagra); the parties at Christmas, New Year and Easter; the gite campestri during the summer; and the Italia Day when the doors of the hall were open to everyone who wanted to sample foods and learn about Italian traditions. The hall was the heart of the Italians of Dominion – it was theirs and it was them.
Food traditions were brought over, maintained and passed down in almost every Italian household. Discussions of food seem to make everyone happy and relaxed, and I spent many hours going through favorite dishes and comparing recipes with the Dominion Trevigiani. Polenta was a staple and was served with in umido, tocio, baccalà, chicken or figà. Risotto, usually with mushrooms, was another favourite, as was trippe. And of course, so was pasta. Wine was homemade in almost every household. Some households made cheese, and there was at least one man who knew how to make baskets. The families, especially during the first years, strived to be self-sufficient, buying in stores only what they could not produce themselves.
Playing cards, in particular scopa, tresette and mora, was a very common pastime for the men, as was the game of bocce. In the old days in Dominion, there were bocce lawns in most of the backyards of the Italians; there were also some both inside and outside of the hall. Playing card games and boccewas taken very seriously by the men, and they sometimes became very vocal. This amused the children, who did not understand the games but thought it was very funny to see elegant men getting angry over cards or rolling balls. This image recalls my own childhood; I would go into the local osteria to buy an ice cream; clouds of smoke fogged the place and made it almost impossible to navigate. Only shadows of men were visible, banging cards on the table, shouting at their partner’s wrong moved and swearing like longshoremen.
I could relate to many of the stories I heard while I was in Dominion. The idea that I went to a small village in Canada to find a version of where I come from is truly amazing and certainly most unexpected. I suspect I will visit often.
Giulia De Gasperi holds a post-doctoral fellowship in ethnology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Her fields of studies are Italian emigration and tradition and customs of Italian farming life.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 21.