Alberto Di Giovanni : An advocate for the Italian language

We’re quick to claim him as our own, but Di Giovanni originally hails from the small town of Roccamorice, Abruzzo. He immigrated to Canada in April 1963, after having completed high school and some seminary studies in Italy. “I did go through the usual experience of hardship,” he recalls of the beginning of his life in Toronto. “My first job was washing dishes in a spaghetti house, then I worked in a factory. I always considered those jobs temporary, to adjust to life in Canadian society. I always wanted to go back to university.”

 And while he remembers that times were hard, Di Giovanni also tempers this by saying that although he faced some difficulties, “things were changing. We were already seeing a different Canada, involving newcomers more in the mainstream.” Never one to give up on his dreams, Di Giovanni did go back to school. He attended St. Michael’s College, where he earned his Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1971, and went on to complete a Master of Arts degree in Italian Studies in 1973. St. Michael’s College is also where Di Giovanni met his wife, Caroline Morgan Di Giovanni, with whom he has three children.

 It was during his time at St. Michael’s that he also met longtime friend Pal Di Iulio, current president of Villa Charities. The two crossed paths when Alberto got involved in the direction and production of different plays put on by the St. Michael’s Italian Club, which Di Iulio was a part of. “He [Di Giovanni] was a little older and brought an extra level of leadership to us. I can certainly call him a mentor,” says Di Iulio of his first interactions with Di Giovanni. “He’s intelligent, eloquent, has passion and he offered it to and shared it with the community.”

 But it wasn’t just on stage that he played the role of leader and mentor; the 1970s saw Di Giovanni the visionary take on various leadership roles within the Italian community, not just in Toronto, but throughout Canada. He was propelled by the question, “How can we express pride in our heritage and at the same time pride in our new society?” and searched for a meaningful way to do just that.                      

In 1976, Di Giovanni founded Centro Scuola e Cultura Italiana, which is now housed in the Columbus Centre. It was, and still is, a place where children could take part in Italian language and culture classes. As he puts it, “It was very difficult, even from a financial point of view, but things improved every year.” As the school expanded, its mandate grew to also include a myriad of cultural activities, like sports and music, as well as classes for adults. “Having a sense of humour at times, helped,” says Di Giovanni. “That’s how we succeeded and how Centro Scuola became a beautiful story within the life of our community.”

 But why all this emphasis on promoting Italian language and culture? “It wasn’t just nostalgia,” Di Giovanni explains, “but a vision that the more languages a person knew, the better. The more enriched his or her personality would be. I was convinced that it would help in developing a better and more profound culture in Canada.” Around the same time, Di Giovanni also found himself leading the charge for the creation of the Heritage Languages Program, which would allow Italian, and subsequently other languages apart from English and French, to be taught during the day in schools where there was enough interest. After a long battle and a lot of convincing, eventually the Heritages Languages Program came to fruition.

Of course, Di Giovanni didn’t stop there. In the 1980s, in his position as director of the school, he organized a program through Centro Scuola that sent students to Italy for language courses during the summer; a program that continues to this day. Along with teachers and various other chaperones, Di Giovanni accompanied many students to his native Abruzzo.     

For Di Giovanni’s students, the power of these trips was transformative. “Some of these kids didn’t want to go to Italy, but what Alberto did was he took these same kids, took them to Italy […] taught them a little bit of Italian and encouraged a bit of integration. So when this young girl or guy came back, it was like wow, what an experience,” says Di Iulio, who took such a trip to Italy with Di Giovanni in 1970 and sent his own children to explore Italy with him as well.

“It was always a great experience,” says Di Giovanni fondly of his time spent among students. “When I retired, we estimated that I had brought 8,000 students to Italy for credit courses in Italian language and culture.”

Retirement turned out to be a long process for Di Giovanni, who became semi-retired from Centro Scuola at the end of 2011 and retired fully due to his age (68) and a few minor health issues, in September 2013. While his retirement was celebrated, he maintains that he “didn’t want a lot of fanfare.” “The important thing for me,” he continues, “was to say goodbye to the students.”

 Certainly though, throughout the course of his distinguished career, Di Giovanni has received his share of fanfare and recognition; he was awarded the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 1977, was named Distinguished Educator of the Year in 1997 by OISE, was a recipient of the Italiani nel Mondo award in 2002, and named Grande Ufficiale Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana in 2003, to name a few. Not to mention the library named in his honour at the Columbus Centre, which houses an impressive collection of Italian and Italian-Canadian literature and artwork.    

What’s in store for him now? A man with his drive and passion surely isn’t planning on fading into obscurity during retirement. His new book, Italian Canadians: Citizenship and Nationality, will be published in both English and Italian in April 2014. Additionally, he’s looking forward to, as he always has, the Columbus Centre’s Mostra del Presepe (nativity scene exhibit), which will run from early December until Epiphany.

Di Giovanni regards the mostra as one of his most popular projects. “I always paired it with the [Centro Scuola] Christmas concert,” he explains. “The two combine family, cultural, artistic and religious traditions, and always succeeded in transmitting the Christmas spirit to the kids.”

When asked to describe Di Giovanni in a few words, Di Iulio doesn’t hesitate. “Our community has only one Alberto Di Giovanni,” he says. “I would have wished that we would have had another five Albertos, because that’s the way you excel.”

written by Sarah Mastroianni