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Researchers document and preserve Guelph's Italian heritage

The Italian Heritage Project will host a virtual event Thursday evening
20211117 Italian children
A photograph from 1950s Guelph shows Italian-Canadian children in the snow. Reproduced with the permission of Iole Cazzola

Researchers from the University of Guelph have conducted around 35 interviews and catalogued hundreds of photos as part of an initiative aimed at preserving the narratives and artifacts of Italian immigrants to Guelph and Canada. 

On Thursday, they'll introduce the Italian Heritage Project to the general public at a virtual event hosted by Guelph Public Library. 

Sandra Parmegiani, head of the U of G's Italian studies program, started the Guelph Italian Heritage Project in 2018, working with a small group of students to interview members of the Guelph's Italian community, collect historical images and photograph artifacts. That project has since grown and is now hosted on a website with research from other institutions. 

"I think it's long overdue and it's a very important project," she said. "It shows to the Italian migrant community that their history is valuable and what they have contributed to the Canadian narrative is valued and should not be lost."

Among the items documented as part of the project are a cherished pair of scissors a downtown Guelph tailor brought with him from Italy and a journal written in the trenches of Northern Italy during the First World War. That document was lent to the project by the author's 94-year-old daughter-in-law who now lives in Guelph. It's currently being analyzed and translated into English. 

"What we're trying to get across to the community is please come forward, talk to us," Parmegiani said. "Give us what you treasured, if you treasured it, the larger community will treasure it as well."

She explained this work is particularly important now at a "junction" when many third-generation Italians — the grandchildren of the wave of people who migrated to Canada in the immediate aftermath of World War Two — want to reconnect to their heritage. 

"These families have a fairly recent history, but a history that risks being lost," she said. "This is why we want to preserve it."

The implications of documenting those stories could be far-reaching.  

"This speaks to a specific ethnic group, but also to a larger experience of migration across communities," Parmegiani said. "To me it's very relevant at a time when we have new migrants and new communities (coming to Canada)."

Register for the virtual History Lives Here: Italian Heritage Project at this link