Third-generation Italian-Canadians more interested in preserving their heritage than previous generation, SFU study finds

March 3, 2015

By Shawn Conner, Special to Vancouver Sun |

According to a new study, Vancouver’s third-generation Italians are more interested in maintaining their original cultural identity than their immediate predecessors.

For the study, Eva Sajoo, a research associate with Simon Fraser University’s Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement (IDRE), designed a 30-question online survey. Eighty-eight per cent of respondents (a majority between 19-39) identified their Italian identity as important and “something they wanted to preserve and pass on to their children,” Sajoo said.

The study is the result of a partnership between Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre (ICC) and IDRE. The Sun talked to Sajoo about the results.

Q: The impetus behind the study was a recent resurgence of interest in Italian language classes, and growth in Italian cultural centres in Seattle, Montreal and Toronto. Is that right?

A: Well, it was, but there were earlier clues. About a year ago, I began to notice that there seemed to be an increasing interest in cultural identity among third-generation immigrants. I saw it at a South Asian wedding, for example, where the couple were using traditional ceremonies their parents would never have touched. I saw it among some Hungarians in my family who wanted to learn the language and even get dual citizenship. So when the director of Il Centro (the Italian Cultural Centre) told me there was an upsurge in language classes, I thought, “There’s something going on here.” The study was a way to try to isolate this third-generation phenomenon in one community and see how it worked.

Q: And the next step was the questionnaire?

A: Yes. We designed a 30-question electronic questionnaire and tried to get the word out. Basically, it asked questions about language use, connection to Italy, social patterns, and religion.

Q: How did you get the questionnaire to the right people?

A: The Italian Centre sent it out through their electronic and word-of-mouth contacts. But of course we also wanted to get people who were not already connected to them. So we put it on our website and then put up posters in businesses in Italian neighbourhoods. We got it in a Burnaby paper and tried to use word-of-mouth, too. There was also campus advertising.

Q: And the surprising thing for you was that third-generation Italians were taking back their culture despite their parents’ more determined assimilation?

A: Yes. The difference between the second and third generations was striking. In some cases, there just hadn’t been a strong emphasis on culture (except for religion), and in other cases, there was a conscious effort to focus on English and not speak Italian with the third generation. So, suddenly, we have the grandchildren of the original immigrants who want to learn how to speak the language, how to cook like grandma, and basically wear the Italian heritage with pride.

Q: Can you apply this to the third generation in other immigrant cultures?

A: We are in fact planning a series of workshops at SFU which bring together people from other cultural community centres in the GVRD to compare their experience with the Italians.

Q: Apparently, a smaller majority of respondents, 61 per cent, felt that they were distinct from other Canadians, due to their ethnic roots. But they also had trouble identifying a singular Canadian identity to which they could compare themselves.

A: This was a question we asked them about the extent to which their Italian identity made them feel different or distinct from other Canadians. Sixty-one per cent said yes, and the rest said no. But the really interesting thing was that both sides gave the same reason to explain their answer. The ones who said “yes” said that their own Italian culture made them distinct, but they were part of a larger country made up of small immigrant groups. Those who said “no, we don’t feel different” said it was because their own immigrant cultural identity was just like those of their Polish or other friends. Because, while each cultural group has its own features, we all belong to one of them, which is something powerful we have in common. The fact that both sides made this point was fascinating.

By Shawn Conner, Special to Vancouver Sun | Read Full Article