Listening to the past

A Concordia student is collecting stories about the Italians who arrived in Ville Émard decades ago in search of a better life


They lived behind the oil tanks, working-class immigrants from Italy who toiled in steel mills and coal plants along the southern flank of the Lachine Canal .

Joyce Pillarella grew up in Ville Émard in the 1960s and '70s, granddaughter of that first generation of labourers who left villages in southern Italy in the 1920s for a new life in Canada . Now she's returned to the old neighbourhood to tell their story, with the help of PowerPoint, panini and prosciutto.

"It's all about the food, and oh, yeah, there's a conference going on," Pillarella said.

Joyce Pillarella gazes at the crane near the old LaSalle Coke plant.
"I love these spaces," she says. "They really represent history to me."

A master's degree student in oral history at Concordia University , she's spent the last three years talking to people who remember the old days, before the foundries closed, the big tanks disappeared and community gardens made way for the Carrefour Angrignon mall.

But before writing her thesis this winter, she wants to say thank you Italian-style, by inviting the community to a symposium Sunday where they can see the images, hear the stories she's collected - and, of course, eat.

"We have all these sponsors, we have all this food. We have four pigs coming, 400 panini, 50 pounds of cheese. We have submarine sandwiches. ...We have a biscotti committee, all these women over 70 making homemade biscuits. And coffee - except you need a ticket, because I can only seat so many people."

A graphic designer by trade, Pillarella has long had a passion for urban exploring, wandering around abandoned industrial buildings and favourite landmarks like the LaSalle Coke crane, a black hulk that towers above St. Patrick St. in LaSalle.

"I love these spaces. They're authentic. They're not touched, they're not Disney World. They really represent history to me."

Several years ago, she started collecting stories of a community, a lifestyle, even a dialect in danger of disappearing. "The southwest, anything around the Lachine Canal , it's like this black hole over here," she said.

At first, Pillarella expected to focus on what Ville Émard was like in the 1930s and '40s, "because there was the political stuff with the fascists." Her grandfather had headed a fascist group in Ville Émard and spent time as a prisoner of war. But she soon realized most of Montreal 's Italian POWs are dead and few in the community wanted to relive that dark period.

"People don't want to talk about that because of what they know now. So they are judging that period with today's eyes - which is kind of sad, because it gets watered down and they don't want to say anything. They're afraid," she said.

"The controversial stories, you can get them out, but you just have to be really careful."

Instead, she became fascinated with the ways "place affects people - how where you grow up shapes your identity," focusing on the district's industrial character and bonds forged in the mill, the church and the playground.

Aided by a retired millworker named Geraldo Cautillo, she interviewed men who worked at LaSalle Coke and the Dosco steel plant, and women who came out as brides after proxy weddings in the old country.

"They talk about unskilled workers. But these people were skilled - they could sew, they could knit, they could build houses, they could hunt, they could make sauce, they could repair everything. How do you call them unskilled?"

To get a better feel for what it was like to work in the mills, she spent an hour at one plant. "After five minutes, I couldn't breathe. I didn't put the ear things in because I wanted to hear what they hear. The noise is insane. When I told some of the guys, they said, 'Oh, that's nothing. You should have been in the (old) foundry.' "

Pillarella, who began thinking about this project shortly after her father died a few years ago, was eager to get this community history out there while her oldest collaborators are still around. "That's what the whole project was about." She also felt it was important to do it at St. John Bosco Church hall, a place where seniors will feel at ease. "People have memories of being in a church basement, whether they are good or bad, and it brings you back to the past."

After weeks of planning committee meetings built around her mother Elisa's homemade pizza, Pillarella is resigned to the fact that her research is strictly the antipasto at this Italian feast.

"I feel like I'm running an Italian wedding. All that's missing are the bomboniere."

- - -

Going to '"la stora e corno'

One of the biggest challenges of oral history is keeping it real - letting people speak in their own words. But that's easier said than done when your subjects are speaking not one but two or three languages - and using words you'll never find in a dictionary.

"Italians in Ville Émard speak a language that is unique to Montreal ," said Joyce Pillarella, who's creating an oral history of the neigbourhood. "It's a mix of Italian or dialect with English, Italian with French, and Italian dialect with industrial terms - and words they've invented."

As she transcribed interview tapes, Pillarella said, she stumbled over unique phrases like "pik e pal" (pick and shovel), "finding la steady" (finding a job) or "la stora e corno" (the corner store).

"Even things like urban spaces. What do these people know about urban spaces? They come from villages. So when they see a lane for the first time, what's it called? They don't know, so they call it 'la ruella' because they hear people call it 'ruelle,' so they put an 'a' on the end," she said.

"I don't correct it. I leave it because language is really time and place, and that language is going to disappear in a generation. People aren't going to use these words any more. The words really reflect historical meanings. They reflect social meanings."


L'histoire et les histoires des Italiens dans Ville-Émard

 - Plusieurs membres de la communauté étaient à l'église St John Bosco pour prendre connaissance du travail de recherche sur l'histoire et les origines de la communauté italienne du quartier Émard mené par Joyce Pillarella, étudiante de maîtrise en tradition orale à l'université Concordia. (Photo : Guy Gélinas)

Plusieurs membres de la communauté étaient à l'église St John Bosco pour prendre connaissance du travail de recherche sur l'histoire et les origines de la communauté italienne du quartier Émard mené par Joyce Pillarella, étudiante de maîtrise en tradition orale à l'université Concordia. (Photo : Guy Gélinas)

Le 28 septembre, au sous-sol de l'église St John Bosco, Joyce Pillarella dévoilait les résultats de son travail de recherche sur l'histoire et les origines de la communauté italienne du quartier Émard.

Histoires inédites contées par ces ouvriers que formaient les Italiens arrivés au début du siècle passé, avec des souvenirs de la LaSalle Coke, de la Dosco, la construction du canal de Lachine, les jardins italiens sur la rue Newman, le terrain des «Eaux chaudes», les Hurricanes, l'histoires de ruelles et de rues de Ville-Émard. «Nous étions rarement mentionnés dans les livres d'histoire, c'est comme si nous n'avions jamais existé», dit Joyce Pillarella, étudiante de maîtrise en tradition orale à l'université Concordia.

Mme Pillarella, elle-même originaire de Ville-Émard, a entrepris, il y a trois ans, des entrevues auprès d'Italiens du voisinage créant une recherche originale utilisant la méthodologie de la tradition orale.

Mme Pillarella a donné aux gens la chance de raconter l'histoire. «Maintenant ils sont les protagonistes d'histoires, on leur donne une voix et leurs histoires sont puissantes. Si elle n'est pas enregistrée, notre histoire sera perdue», déclare Gerardo Cautillo, un ouvrier retraité de la LaSalle Coke, membre du groupe des ouvriers industriels. «Ces histoires viennent de notre coeur. Nos enfants apprécieront ce que nous avons fait lorsqu'ils liront nos histoires», poursuit M. Cautillo.

Giuseppe Maiolo, président du conseil des services communautaires italo-canadiens du Québec, a ouvert la conférence. Le vice-consul italien à Montréal, Massimiliano Gori, a aussi adressé quelques mots à l'assistance tandis que le professeur Bruno Ramirez, cinéaste et professeur d'histoire à Université de Montréal, a parlé des défis auxquels les premiers immigrants ont dû faire face à leur arrivée à Montréal. Mme Pillarella a enchainé avec l'histoire du quartier Ville-Émard italien en s'entourant de jeunes étudiants de l'école St John Bosco, qui ont tour à tour présenté les membres de leurs familles.

Ivana Bombardieri, animatrice radio à la station de radio italienne CFMB, est venue écouter les histoires et prendre la parole pour clôturer l'événement. «Nous avons voulu dire merci à ceux qui ont immigré ici, parce que c'est leur courage et leur détermination qui ont rendu nos vies incommensurablement meilleures. On doit faire connaître leurs histoires», a déclaré Deborah Cross, membre du comité organisateur. «Il y avait tant de nourriture que chacun s'en est retourné heureux avec un panino, un fruit, du fromage ou biscotti fait maison», a déclaré Mike Moretto.

Marie Forte a ajouté, «l'après-midi fut très émotionnelle, nous avons pleuré, nous avons ri, mais nous avons appris beaucoup sur notre histoire et cela nous a tous rendu très fier».

On se doit de souligner l'apport des personnes suivantes à la tenue de cet évènement : Camille Baccanale, Romualdo Barillaro, Gerardo Cautillo, Vincent Cavaliere, Deborah Cross, Marie Forte, Nancy Goodall, Amalia Izzi, Anna Licursi, Meagan Mooney, Gino Moretto, Jerry Moretto, Mike Moretto, Meagan Mooney, Pierina Nucci, Elisa Pillarella, Joyce Pillarella, Potier de Bruyère, Père Umberto Ranieri, Adriana Rinaldi, Lucia Rinaldi, Tiffany Simons et Raffaela Trotta.

Sans oublier nos jeunes étudiants de St John Bosco: Alicia Barillaro, Giulia Bartolone, Riccardo Baldacchino, Sabatino Baldacchino, Pauline Belliveau, Matthieu Cavaliere, Natasha Fatouros, Sabrina Fatouros, Michel Gigliotti, Ariana Matteo, Justin Matteo, Giacomo Palucci, Julie Santini. Et la caisse Desjardins Ville-Émard pour son appui tout au long du projet.