“I’ve been coming up here since I was a baby,” says Ciccolini, who grew up in Brampton and Mississauga as the son of an Italian immigrant father and a First Nations mother.
Ciccolini describes himself as “Italian-Native” – or vice versa depending on the situation, he notes with a frank laugh. “I grew up both ways,” he says, referring to his mixed heritage. But if he has to, he says, he sets the proportion at roughly “90% Italian and 10% native.” While the traditions at home in the city were Italian – the food, celebrations, involvement in local charities – Ciccolini nevertheless kept a close physical connection to Rama. In fact, while he has been back to Italy a few times to visit his father’s home town of Pescosolido near Frosinone, Ciccolini has been countless more times to the reserve where his mother’s family lived.
This side of his upbringing was characterized by camping, bonfires and spending time in nature. “Stuff you can’t do in the city,” he says. Rama was also the place Ciccolini’s parents would come to spend the weekends even once the kids were older.
After his father (Mario Francesco Ciccolini) passed away four years ago, Ciccolini started thinking about how best to look after his daughter, now five-years-old, and his mother. Two years ago he made the decision to settle permanently in Rama, on the eastern shore of Lake Couchiching, across the water from Orillia. The reserve, which is perhaps best known outside the community as the home of Casino Rama, is a prosperous one with a library, elementary school, state-of-the-art sports complex, and a police and emergency services hub.
Ciccolini says it was important to him that his mother wasn’t lonely, and he also wants his daughter to experience the nature and freedoms he remembers from childhood. Both generations now live together in a spacious home – with a large open kitchen and a big backyard with a pool – across the road from the home of Ciccolini’s late maternal aunt.
His daughter is surrounded by nature, a tight-knit community and one of the area’s top-ranked schools where she is learning to speak Ojibway and participate in First Nations traditions. “It’s the only thing she knows,” Ciccolini says. Nonetheless, he has kept close ties to his father’s side of the family who live in the GTA, gathering for Easter, Christmas and major events. With four uncles and the subsequent generations of cousins, he estimates family gatherings number around 70 guests. While his family name carried some weight in the Italian-Canadian community, particularly given the business legacy of his Uncle Sam, Ciccolini jokes that Rama is not a place where having an Italian last name opens doors for you. (In Rama, the more historic family names include Snake and Noganosh, for example.) Being elected president of the Orillia District Fastball League helped him feel welcomed and trusted as a member and representative of the community, he says, especially because sports like baseball, fastball and hockey are very important part of local culture. Ciccolini is also a status Indian. He says he made the decision five years ago to apply once regulations were changed that allowed him to claim indigenous ancestry through his mother. To have status means one is registered under Canada’s Indian Act as meeting specific ancestry criteria, thereby gaining access to certain provincial and federal benefits and programs such as tax exemptions or post-secondary education funding. (However, not all Canadians who identify as First Nations have status for various reasons, some of which are very complex and at times controversial.)
And he approaches the thorny issue of stereotypes with the perspective of someone who has lived in different communities; there is a lot of substance abuse everywhere, he says by way of example, and perhaps it is more visible in First Nations reserves because of the smaller size of the community. It doesn’t mean it isn’t happening elsewhere, he says, noting he’s seen friends from non-First Nations backgrounds struggle with the same problems. Raising his daughter alone, Ciccolini makes his decisions in her best interest and he is adamant he made the right choice raising her on the reserve rather than in a city, with all the stresses and dangers that go with urban life. “Everyone knows everyone,” he says, adding, “It was never a place I thought I would come to stay.” But now, he would never think of leaving.