One of Deputy Mayor Tony Mancini’s favourite assignments is attending citizenship ceremonies. “I get to tell the story of my parents; I’m happy to tell it,” says Tony. “And I ask them to go home tonight, celebrate, invite your neighbours and friends, have a meal together, share your customs and traditions, and ask them about theirs.” He leaves feeling very emotional and happy to see the province’s increasing diversity.
The youngest of three children in the only Italian family in St. Peter’s, Cape Breton, Tony is aware of what it’s like to be different. His parents, Evelina and Elio, immigrated after World War II. Elio, who’d been a prisoner-of-war, landed at Pier 21 in 1949, joining an uncle and brother. To sponsor Evelina, he married her over the telephone, Tony says, noting that his mother cried for the first six months here.
They didn’t speak the language and they didn’t have much money. They are my heroes.
Elio worked in the Stirling Mines and then in his brother’s restaurant. “We stuck out. Both my parents had a heavy accent and my dad had broken English.” But they grew to be respected, buying a motel in 1969 and operating it for 12 years. “They opened that motel at 7 a.m. and worked til midnight.” Tony did chores there, starting when he was nine. “That was a little hard at times, but that foundation gave me a good work ethic.”
He was teased as a child, but used humour to deflect it. He also scored points: “My lunches were different than anyone else’s and, to this day, my friends say I’d love going to your birthday party because you guys served pasta!” His oldest sister spoke fluent Italian but Tony wasn’t interested. “My dad would speak to us in Italian and we’d answer in English. I wanted to fit in so I didn’t embrace the culture until I got older.” Relatives gathered for special occasions, eating Italian food and loudly playing card games. Food remains important as he tries to replicate his mother’s cooking, and makes Italian sausages with cousins.
Tony says he was bright, but not academic. He worked in the oil business and then started Priority Management, a consulting training business. Nothing, however, has been more satisfying than being on council for Halifax Regional Municipality. Elio didn’t live to see it, but 95-year-old Evelina devotedly watches council meetings on television every week. “I think immigrants look at politicians differently. They’re not the bad guy; they are respected. We take voting for granted. When my kids could vote, we made a big deal about it.”
While his mother never returned to Italy, his father went back a few times. Tony has traveled there and hopes to return with his two grown children. His sisters are now retired; Theresa was a CBC sales manager while Maria was a senior federal public servant. His father was so delighted he would call them “the best family in Canada.” The pride goes both ways. “Neither had much education, culture was different, climate was different, food was different,” says Tony. “They didn’t speak the language and they didn’t have much money. They are my heroes.”