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A Walk Down Memory Lane

In a large park in Montreal’s east end borough of St-Leonard stands a rather impressive bronze statue of a young man holding a suitcase. He is posed on a giant bronze half globe, one foot on the outline of Canada, the other on Italy. As a child my maternal grandfather would take me for walks around his neighbourhood and we would inevitably end up in front of this statue, where he would explain that it was of him, coming to Canada with ten dollars in his pocket. The plaque on the statue simply reads “L’immigrante” (The Immigrant). I can’t remember exactly when I found out that the statue wasn’t actually of my grandfather, but for years I was convinced the city of Montreal had erected it in remembrance of his immigration to Canada. And why not, the story of his immigration is an embedded piece of my family’s folklore….

In 1952, twenty-nine year old Emidio Di Paolo leaves his home in Barisciano, Italy aboard the Saturnia and lands at Pier 21. He is destined to go work as a farmhand in northern Quebec, around the small agricultural village of Saint-Paul-L’Hermite. On route, someone notices the armband he is wearing (which denotes his final farming destination) and suggests he remove it. Assured that no one would notice he is missing, or even bother looking for him, the armband is taken off, and taking the stranger’s advice, he boards the train to Montreal.

The last minute change in plans is a lucky happenstance — Montreal is in the middle of a large construction boom, one that sees thousands of Italian workers erect the city’s downtown core. He quickly finds a job working with steel rebar, and soon thereafter, due to his ability to read architect blueprints, becomes foreman. It will be four years of hard work on those construction sites before the rest of his family is able to join him in Canada.

On the Vulcania in 1956, a young girl, my mother, is playing with her little red ball, bouncing it along the third class deck. When it tumbles off the ship’s edge and plunges into the ocean, she sobs inconsolably—it was her only store-bought toy. She is shortly joined on deck by her uncle and mother. Her four-year-old brother, born soon after their father immigrated to Canada, trails closely behind them. An on-board photographer snaps a picture of them in front of the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s a picture I subsequently donate to Pier 21 on my mother’s behalf the first time I visit the museum. The picture immortalizes the last time the little girl sees the outside deck of the ship until it docks. Once the Vulcania hits the open ocean, her mother becomes violently seasick and the children are consequently confined to their room for most of the trip. Their train trip and subsequent arrival in Montreal means the family is finally reunited, my grandfather meets his son for the first time, and together, they can begin this new, challenging chapter in their lives.

This is a story I grew up hearing, at family gatherings, holidays—anytime really. This narrative is one that has profoundly shaped my identity and strongly influenced my desire to dedicate my life to studying ethnicity and oral traditions. It’s one of the reasons I’m thrilled to have joined the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 team, as I get to literally walk in my family’s footsteps every day.