Tuesday, March 23, 2010

In Their Own Names

Fifty years ago, five men died while working in a watermain in what became known as the Hoggs Hollow Disaster. It helped pave the way to better workers' rights in Ontario, and last week a memorial quilt was unveiled in York Mills subway station - adjacent to the site of the disaster - to commemorate it. Torontoist made a detailed and well-written post about the disaster and its background last Saturday, far more detailed than the simple historical plaque the city installed at the disaster site some time ago.

One particular part of it infuriated me, and it was completely unexpected. I'm not criticizing Torontoist's work, though. What I refer to specifically is a clipping they include from the March 24, 1960 edition of the Toronto Telegram, part of that paper's coverage of the disaster. It's a diagram of the underground works, centered around the five bodies that were ultimately found by rescuers.

The five men who died in that watermain in 1960 were Italian immigrants, hardly uncommon in the postwar Toronto. Their names, if nothing else, make it clear - Pasquale Allegrezza, Giovanni Correglio, Giovanni Fusillo, Alessandro Mantella, and Guido Mantella. In 2010 they're totally unremarkable, but in 1960, Toronto was just beginning to become a magnet for immigrants to Canada. While the transition from the nineteenth century's "Methodist Rome" to the multicultural city of today was remarkably smooth, there had to have been cultural issues at the time to work through.

That's what I see in the Telegram's 1960 diagram. Where the bodies are identified, they're identified as belonging to Pasqualle [sic] Alegrezza, John Correglio, John Fusillo, Alexander Mantella, and Guido Mantella. Presumably Pasquale and Guido were permitted to keep their names because "Pascal" and "Guy" still sounded foreign to the Toronto-Anglo ear of 1960. Granted, I don't know if the three simply took English names to make things easier - it's a definite possibility, though that diagram is the only place I've seen the three given Anglo names - but this is about showing respect for the dead. The least the Telegram could have done would to report on their deaths using their actual names.

I talked about this with my roommate afterward, for perspective; he's usually the one who breaks down things I have difficulty comprehending. One possibility we hashed out was that it was a manifestation of cultural chauvinism - that the English names were used, where they could be easily switched out, to make it easier for readers to relate to them as people. In 1960, if you were a white Torontonian, "Giovanni" may well have been just some strange, unfathomable foreigner, while "John" could just as easily be your next-door neighbor. It's the sort of thing that's been going on for centuries - how many Canadians and Americans were taught about John Cabot, say, rather than Giovanni Caboto? I didn't even realize he was Italian until I was far older than I should have done, just because of the name alone.

We may, finally, be moving out of that, and it's about time. For Toronto in particular, demographics are shifting, and any name could belong to your neighbor. In times long past, people began to believe that names have power. It's absolutely true. Names are powerful things to shape our perceptions of the world, and it behooves us to treat them with the respect due them.


  1. Too true Andrew. I agree that the standards have changed since the 1960's. I agree with Alex on the fact that the media may have changed their names to make the dominant class identify with them and their families. But there's.

    Another possible reason would be that when they immigrated they were given those names on their papers by the immigration people to help them find work or some such thing like that. I know it happened with the French citizens a lot during confederation, or something like that.

  2. Very good piece, but it's Pasquale, not Pasqualle. (I'm Italian).
    You'd be amazed at how people find foreign names, even very simple ones, hard to pronounce or retain. A friend of mine was just interviewed by a paper about gay marriage. His partner's name was given in the paper as "Dough".

  3. Thanks for the note and the good words - I have fixed the spelling. Though this may still lead back into what I was talking about - I got the spelling from the Torontoist article, and they may have got it from the _Telegram_, as the 1960 information spells it "Pasqualle."