Maria and I really hit it off so we planned to get together for another “neighbourhood walk and talk” to be able to check out a few more of the merchants along Queen Street East. We met again at the Honey Bee Restaurant where Maria had just been having lunch with her husband Robert who excused himself shortly after as he had to leave. Maria and I picked up where we had left off last week.
In my interviews I always try to get to know the real person, stripping away official titles and pre-conceived notions. Somehow Maria and I started talking about family issues again. I asked Maria whether she and her husband shared the same last name, and Maria explained that her husband’s last name is MacBain, and that he is originally from Inverness, Scotland, and that he is a retired media and communications consultant. Maria added that when they got married in 1982 she retained her own last name, a common tradition in Italy. Maria noticed my surprise and explained that women generally keep their last names in Italy, despite the common impression that Italy is perceived as a rather traditional country characterized by a certain Latin machismo.
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Maria’s mother’s name was Pierina Ligori, but when they arrived in Canada the Canadian authorities single-handedly renamed her mother and gave her her husband’s last name “Minna”. She added that by that time her mother was 47 years old and had lived her entire adult life with the last name “Ligori”. Not surprisingly Pierina always resented this imposed loss of identity. Maria also told me that her grandfather in Italy brought in tutors to teach his son (Maria’s uncle) while Maria’s mother was not allowed to attend school or be part of the private tutoring sessions that her brother enjoyed. For a woman born in 1910, this was all part of the belief system that women did not need education, that they were simply going to stay home and have children. Maria’s mother often expressed anger at her own father for having denied her these essential educational opportunities, and not only did Pierina have trouble learning English later on in life, she had never learned how to read or write. I concluded that many of these experiences made Maria a strong advocate of education and women’s rights early on.
We revisited Maria’s childhood which was strongly shaped by the family’s arrival in Canada in 1957. As the middle child with two younger sisters and an older sister and older brother, Maria’s parents had chosen to entrust her with the family’s administrative issues ever since she was very young. Maria had to look after important family affairs, handle the family’s documents and had a significant role in assisting the family financially. At age 24 she finally began to look after herself when she enrolled in a degree program in sociology.
As her parents aged, care-giving became a major issue. Maria had always been the main administrator in the household, and caring for her increasingly frail and elderly parents became another one of her responsibilities. When Maria was first elected to Parliament in 1993 her mother and father were healthy, but just a few years later in 1999, the year when Maria became a federal Minister, Maria’s mom was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Maria seriously considered not accepting the position, but one of her younger sisters convinced her to pursue the once-in-a-life-time opportunity of becoming a minister in the Canadian federal government.
Maria would spend time with her mother on weekends when she was in town and arranged for 24-hour on-site care to look after her mother’s health and safety. Pierina’ s short-term memory was destroyed by Alzheimers, while her long-term memory and rational thinking remained intact until her death in 2001. Often during severe episodes of Alzheimers, Pierina would get very agitated, and when her caregiver phoned Maria in Ottawa and let mother and daughter talk, Pierina would calm right down again.
In later years, Pierina often dem
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anded to “go home”, and her caregiver would reply “But Pierina, you are home”. Often the caregiver would take Pierina on a tour of the house and explain that this was indeed her house, that she had just recently completed certain renovations, in the hope that Pierina would recognize her own home. Sometimes none of these strategies worked, and Pierina would keep on insisting on going home. As a creative solution, the caregiver would call a taxi, take Pierina out for a coffee, and take a cab back home. Because of Pierina’s short-term memory lapses, the caregiver would sometimes have to take her out three times, because upon her return Pierina forgot again that she was in her own home. But Pierina’s long-term memory was intact until the end: the day before her death, Pierina and Maria were singing old Italian folk songs, and Pierina remembered every detail of the lyrics.
Family has been an important aspect of Maria Minna’s life. She is very close to her three sisters and her brother who continues to live in her parent’s original home in the Bloor – Ossington area. The entire extended family with all the nieces, nephews and their children gets together on holidays such as Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Maria, who has two step-children with her husband Robert, is also very close to her nieces. She explained that her older sister’s first child was was born when Maria was 10 years old, and as a result of this small age difference her older niece simply calls her “Maria”. There is a much greater age difference with her younger sisters’ daughters; they respectfully refer to Maria as “Zia Maria” (Aunt Maria) or simply “Zia”.
Just recently Maria connected with some of her nieces who suggested that they get together and make some home-made pasta just the way nonna (“grandma” – Maria’s mother) used to make it. So the women got together and visited Matilda, a good friend of the family in whose house the family had stayed when they first arrived in Canada. Matilda taught them how to make pasta dough, and the ladies made pasta fina from scratch and even cut the pasta dough by hand. They served the pasta on two long wooden platters that are made of tree trunks from Maria’s home town in Italy. The consensus was to do this again soon and make this a regular bonding ritual among the female members of the family. Maria explained that her family gives her nourishment and acts an important anchor for her. She is also very grateful for her husband’s support of her political career which has been a critical element in her success.
I also asked Maria about what it was like to be one of the first female political trailblazers in Canada. Maria responded that she was the first Italian-Canadian woman minister in Canada, and added that many Italian-Canadians were very proud of her. She even received a medal from an Italian organization that was honouring prominent Italian exiles all over the world for their achievements. Another recipient of this medal was Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York State. Maria explained that Jean Chretien wanted a minister of Italian heritage as well as a woman for this position, and with Maria’s appointment he was able to kill two birds with one stone.
In 1999 Maria was selected for the International Co-operation portfolio because of her social justice background. This happened despite the fact that she had been very aggressive in the past in fighting for social causes, sometimes criticizing her own party for not being progressive enough. In Maria’s words she definitely was not a “wallflower”, and she added that former Prime Minister Chretien actually liked people who spoke their mind and did not back down. Maria had no problem being pushy and advocating for child care, immigrant or women’s rights, the homeless or pension reform. In fact, when Jean Chretien met Maria’s mother in his office, he told her,” Maria is always giving me hell.”
Another fond memory for Maria was her trip back to her home town of Pofi in 1995. After a few days in her birth town she was planning to leave for a round-trip of Italy to visit Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples and Sicily. But her cousin said “You can’t leave”, and was hesitant to give her an explanation why. Finally Maria was able to prod the secret out of her relative: the entire town had planned to honour Maria in a big celebration that would involve the whole village. On the day of the festivities, senior police officers escorted her to the Piazza, located on a hill in her beautiful home town which dates back to about 1000 AD. The whole town was assembled, and the mayor gave a speech to honour Maria and her achievements. Maria was showered with gifts and speeches, and was invited to speak to the townspeople during a special outdoor mass, an enormous honour. Maria was astounded at the pride that people felt for her in her home country although she had left Italy at nine years of age.
The immigrant experience has definitely shaped Maria Minna, making her keenly aware of social justice issues. She has dedicated an entire lifetime to fight for immigrant rights, women’s issues and environmental causes. She is passionate about Canada and wants to change this nation into the country that it can be: an economically successful nation where nobody is left behind.
Current political developments have devastated Maria. The Conservative government has dismantled the National Childcare Program, something that Maria personally fought very hard for over many years. Women’s rights have been attacked by the removal of the mandate of the Status of Women’s office. Charter challenges have been eliminated, and Maria feels the current government has little respect for Parliament and tries to get everything done through executive powers. Despite all her past trials and tribulations, Maria admitted that the past year has been the most difficult year of her life.
At the same time she feels that the average Canadian citizen is still very progressive, a positive thinker who believes in sharing the wealth. She feels that currently there is a misfit between the average citizen and the government in power, and is committed to changing the current government.
Maria had shared some very personal experiences with me, and we had just about an hour to do another neighbourhood stroll to drop in on some of the stores. We left to check out some of the cool merchandise on offer along Queen Street, one of the most eclectic shopping neighbourhoods in Toronto, featuring a broad variety of fashion retailers, gift stores and specialty shops.
The first store we dropped in on was the “Nutty Chocolatier” , an “olde fashioned candy & ice cream store”. Brenda Brooks, the manager, was not in, but her colleagues Needra Doornekamp and Monica Bettson welcomed us. The Nutty Chocolatier currently has nine stores across Ontario and offers hand crafted chocolates, sugar free chocolates, novelties, candy, fudge, imported and domestic candy, antique replica tins, gift baskets, corporate gift items, and much more. There was still a selection of Valentine’s chocolates available, and Maria was also interested in the sugar-free chocolates which would make a fabulous gift for anyone with diabetes. Maria picked up a sweet little something for her husband, and off we were to our next store.
All the interesting displays at The Gingerbread House, a few steps east from the Nutty Chocolatier, caught our interest. This store sells unique presents and jewellery, and Kelly Hutchman, the owner, invited us in. I was particularly enchanted by the displays of beautiful handcrafted fashion jewellery in the most brilliant colours, including turquoise, amber and salmon coloured pieces. Kelly mentioned that the jewellery is made from Swarovsky crystal.
The Beach is one of Toronto’s most dog-friendly neighbourhoods, and as Maria and I were strolling along the south side of Queen Street all of a sudden I saw a sign on the other side: “Bark & Fitz – For You And Your Dog”. I pulled Maria over and suggested that we go visit this place. We walked into a really hip boutique that has everything a dog owner could ever want: from shampoos and conditioners to grooming tools to freshly baked treats and toys and even practical items such as beds, bowls and blankets – Bark and Fitz has it all, and owner Kelly Cole showed us around. Kelly is a Beacher who is very proud of her connection with this neighbourhood, and was very curious about the Beach Photo Exhibition and promised her support for this event.
We also headed into Living Lighting in the Beach, a place where Maria had bought some Murano glass lamps recently. Living Lighting features a wide range of interior and exterior lighting, ceiling fans, track and recessed lighting as well as electric fireplaces. The store is packed full of unique lighting options, and I saw various types of lamp designs that I had never seen anywhere else. In addition to the contemporary designs we also had a look at the Tiffany lamp display at the front of the store. Maria had a chance to catch up with the owner Norton Abramson again, who had assisted her on her recent purchase.
Last but not least we decided to pay a visit to Overkill, a popular beach volleyball retailer. Toronto is Canada’s beach volleyball mecca, and Woodbine Beach is the location of hundreds of beach volleyball nets that are busy with enthusiastic athletes from early spring until late fall. As a volleyball player myself I figured I’d like to pop in and say hello to the crew at Overkill, one of Canada’s most well-known volleyball outfitters.
Maria and I entered the store and three enthusiastic young staff members welcomed us. Overkill carries everything for the serious beach volleyball athlete, from t-shirts to sweatshirts, hoodys, sweat pants and yoga pants to visors, hats and cool beach flip flops. Maria and I were quite enchanted by the ergonomically designed beach sandals; they looked amazingly comfortable yet sturdy. The crew at Overkill was very excited about the Beach event and said they would help spread the word about the Photo exhibition. Maria recognized the last name of one of the employees and started chatting with the young man. Apparently his grandmother hails from the same town as Maria and the two ladies actually know each other quite well.
After our outings, both Maria and I realized what a small world this is, even in a big city like Toronto. Now I understand why one of Maria’s favourite pastimes is to go shopping along Queen Street. The variety of merchandise, the friendly merchants and the personal connections make this a truly special shopping experience.
It was great to have a chance to meet Maria Minna. All too often, we feel that our local politicians are not approachable or do not share the same interests as we do. After talking to Maria, it is evident that she listens to the concerns of people and is always ready to help.
Maria is an active advocate for social justice. In Ottawa, her work with women’s rights, minority rights, environmental issues, and homelessness newsshype is commended by colleagues of all political stripes. She lobbied hard for the Child Tax Credit, and continues to fight for a National Childcare Program, a National Poverty Strategy, improves health care, pay equity and EI reform to better suit Canadian families.
Although Maria has ruffled a few feathers in Ottawa, she certainly vows that she will continue to fight to protect the rights of others and the betterment of Canada.