by Bill Belsey
Rossella Lario believes that it was her destiny to become a Canadian.
Before Rossella was born in the town of Susa, Italy, her father had planned to come to Canada with his wife to find work in 1973. As fate would have it, they had to abandon their plans when they learned that they were expecting a baby, that child turned out to be Rossella.
Susa is located 51 km west of the City of Turin in the Northwest Piedmont region of Italy, in the middle of Susa Valley, near the border with France at the foot of the Cottian Alps, much like Cochrane lays in the Foothills of the Canadian Rockies. Historically, Susa is known as “The oldest of Alpine towns”. In the Middle and Modern ages, Susa was important as a hub of roads connecting southern France to Italy. Perhaps it was foreshadowing for Rossella’s later life that Susa’s Patron Saint is “St. Mary of the Snow”.
Tragically, Rossella lost her father Elio when she was just five years old; he was 29. Her mother became ill, so Rossella’s nonna and nonno, grandmother and grandfather, raised her. Piera and Pino were dressmakers. Rossella watched them work hard to provide for her; they both modelled the value of hard work for this young Italian girl at an early age.
Rossella closes her eyes and broadly smiles as memory transports her fondly back in time to the “Festa delle castagne“, “Festival of the Chestnuts“, held in the Susa Valley each autumn at the end of September and early October. “I can still remember the lovely aroma of fresh roasted chestnuts wafting from chimneys in family fireplaces“, she reminisced.
As Rossella grew older, she remained no stranger to hard work, taking jobs in coffee shops and a bakery. Eventually, she began post-secondary schooling at the University of Turin, where she studied Education for two years. Later, she was able to land a good job working at the Post Office. Such Government positions were considered plum jobs in Italy at the time as they came with highly-valued benefits, she worked there for twenty years.
In 2013, Rossella and her husband Mario came to Canada looking for new challenges and opportunities, as they had often dreamed about. Mario had a cousin who was living in Toronto, and he had often spoke glowingly about Canada. Mario had replied to an ad placed in Italian newspapers by a Canadian construction company looking for skilled workers. Mario was offered a job. The company promised Mario that they would help him get a work visa, but shortly after their arrival in Vancouver, the company reneged on this promise. Rossella explained that being taken advantage of is a common experience for many vulnerable immigrants. They managed to stay in Canada for four months as tourists. In an expensive city like Vancouver, their savings began to run out quickly. To make matters worse, Rossella found out that she was pregnant. Rossella recalled, “Mario was a skilled, hard worker, but he only spoke three words; ‘beer, cigarettes and hello.” Their prospects were grim.
Out of desperation, they reached out to the Italian Embassy in Vancouver for help. They met Eleonora, who was an Office Manager at the Embassy. One of her duties was to help Italians who were in Canada complete any necessary paperwork. Beyond her required work responsibilities, Eleonora was a part of a volunteer organization through which doctors donated their time and medical skills for free to immigrants. Rossella was very grateful for Eleonora’s support at that crucial time and still sees her as a guardian angel and mentor.
While in Vancouver, Rossella gave birth to Victoria, their first child. Rossella reflected, “Without the help of those generous Canadian doctors, we would have had to pay many thousands of dollars for Victoria to have been born with the proper medical support. I thank God every day for their help when we needed it most. We called our daughter Victoria because her name means Victory.”
In 2014, Rossella, Mario, and their three daughters, Alice, Maia and Victoria, moved to Calgary after Mario accepted a job at a new company, where he was treated much better than he was in Vancouver.
When asked about the differences between Italy and Canada, Rossella shared some insights. “Italians can be very loud and brash. Canadians are calmer and more reserved. I have found Canadians to be very encouraging and helpful; in Italy, people are more concerned about themselves. You have so much space in Canada. It can take days to drive across one province, whereas in Europe you could drive through many countries at the same time. Canada is one of the most beautiful countries in the world; its wilderness is a gift that should never be taken for granted!”
Rossella’s only regret about coming to Canada is that she didn’t do it earlier in her life.
In 2016, Rossella and her family found themselves having ice cream at Mackay’s as countless others have done. They fell in love with Cochrane’s charming historic downtown, it reminded them a little of Susa, as it too is nestled in a valley with mountain vistas.
In 2018, Rossella took the courageous step, along with her life’s savings and opened, “Cuore Di Mamma”, “Mother’s Heart” in Cochrane’s own “Little Italy” not far from The Boot and the Portofino Ristorante just across the street from the Cochrane United Church.
Cuore Di Mamma is more than an Italian delicatessen; it’s a joyful food experience in the heart of Cochrane. When you walk into this slice of Italy, Rossella and her hard-working staff will often greet you with a welcoming smile and a heartfelt, “Buongiorno!”
In Cuore Di Mamma, Rossella is making and sharing delicious food lovingly made with a “Mother’s Heart” using recipes from Rossella’s own family. In an age when people increasingly care about the quality of the food they consume, Rossella has addressed this need head-on. Rossella offers imported premium Italian products, cheeses, cured meats, fresh gourmet sandwiches, homemade soups, fresh bread, pasta and more. Italian words from her menu like bruschetta, capocollo, mortadella, provolone and soppressata, trip off the tongue. Once you have sampled her fresh pasta, anything else will be a pretender. Increasing numbers of patrons are picking up Rosella’s fresh pizza dough, her mouth-watering sauce along with some freshly-shaved pepperoni and mozzarella to be baked and devoured at home. Many can’t resist buying “Italian wedding soup”, using her nonna’s recipe. Others will try her lasagne or other kinds of fresh pasta. To borrow a phrase from a famous ad campaign, you truly can “Taste the difference“. Delizioso!
Rossella and Mario now have three daughters; Victoria, Alice and Maia, they are Rossella’s pride and joy. Rosella is pleased that their children have the opportunity to grow up in Canada. Rosella feels that life in Canada is more peaceful and less stressful than she knew in Italy.
Rossella is hopeful that she and Mario will get their Permanent Residency status soon, and eventually receive their Canadian Citizenship within the next two years. “The Canadian Government is VERY strict about the Citizenship process. You must always tell the truth when they ask you questions. You need to prove that you are going to contribute to making Canada a better country. Canada offers so many possibilities for people like my family and me to follow our dreams.“
In the years ahead, Rossella would like to grow Cuore Di Mamma. She hopes to have a bigger store and hire more employees. She also hopes that she will be in a position to give back to the community. “So many people in Cochrane have been so supportive and encouraging. It makes me realize that being Canadian isn’t merely about a piece of paper; it’s a feeling of pride that we are part of the best country in the world. When you come from another country as I have, you can see how special Canada is. When I hopefully become a Canadian Citizen, I want to have a big party to celebrate. I want to tell people in Cochrane, ‘Grazie mille, thank you, very much, and to those who are facing challenges in their own lives, I would say, ‘Mai mollare, never give up!”
Mosaic Stories: Tony Elain by Bill Belsey
Perceptions change with perspective.
At first glance, the intriguing artwork in the foyer of the Cochrane Ranchehouse entitled “Trust”, looks like a horse, lovingly embraced. Upon closer inspection, you can see this marvellous mosaic is actually made up of 216 individual paintings that were created by a team of local artists, coordinated by artist Lewis Lavoie of St. Albert, Alberta, it was unveiled on Canada Day, 2007.
Many Canadians would be surprised to learn that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to describe the national character of Canada was, in fact, an American. In 1922, Victoria Hayward referred to our country this way in the published work, Romantic Canada, a piece of travel writing detailing her journey across our fair land.
A community is also a mosaic. Viewed from a distance we develop general impressions. Moving closer we can begin to better appreciate those who make up the mosaic that is Cochrane, Alberta. My new column, “Mosaic” strives to do just that; help us know our community better by digging a little deeper. In this digital age of Social Media where we might not truly know those we are interacting with, we might be tempted to communicate things online that we might never say or do in person. In an increasingly technological time, we need to actively re-connect in more humane ways. I hope that my Mosaic column might help us to move beyond the big picture and look more closely so that we might better understand the individuals who are part of Cochrane’s community canvas.
Damascus, Syria is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and it was in this culturally rich and historic community that Tony Elain was born on April 3, 1943. Tony was a middle child, with four brothers and one sister.
In a telling anecdote from his childhood, Tony recalls that every Sunday he and his friends would ride their old bikes for four or five hours so that they could travel to the mountains where they would find trees, ripe with dates and other fresh fruit. They would pick and devour these organic treasures, savouring the succulent juices on sizzling Syrian summer days. Tony fondly remembers having picnics in the mountains, drinking fresh water directly from the mountain springs. “Most people couldn’t afford a car, so we used bikes to get around,” he reflected. For Tony, the sheer freedom and independence of these cycling sojourns were just as important as the delicious reward at the end of their tour.
After saving some money, Tony’s dad eventually bought an old 1936 car made by the British Standard Car Company. Tony recalled, “In those days it was very hard to get a new vehicle.” He remembered driving this old car into the mountains without a driver’s license but feared for his life when the brakes failed as he was driving back down on their return home. His mother was constantly hitting her head on the roof of the car that had little, or no suspension, as they drove on those bumpy, mountainous roads.
Tony joined his father and apprenticed in the family shoe repair business from the age of ten to fifteen years. His father was a well-respected master of his trade. In a bold move that would display his drive and foreshadow his rapidly-developing business acumen, Tony left his father’s business and opened his own shop just two blocks from his dad’s. Tony charged less money than his dad and his business flourished, which made Tony’s mother proud of her son’s work ethic and success, but his father was unhappy about the unwelcome competition and eventually, he convinced Tony to reunite with him as one family-run business.
When young men in Syria turn eighteen, they are required to serve in the military. Tony did his duty for two years. Upon completing his service, his family moved to Lebanon, where they lived in Beirut for five years. “Lebanon was a nice country where there was more freedom,” recalls Tony. He stayed with his family in Lebanon for five years. Tragically, during this time, Tony’s mother became ill and died. At that time, Tony’s sister had emigrated to Canada with her husband, and they settled in Calgary. Tony told his father that he also wanted to go to Canada because he felt that he would have a better future there. With Tony’s sister as his sponsor, he came to Canada in 1971. The emigration process had taken him two years.
His father and brother encouraged him to try it and if it didn’t work out, he could come back to Lebanon. Tony was having none of that, he was determined to succeed in Canada. The thought that going back would have meant admitting defeat, he wasn’t about to let that happen.
He arrived in Calgary, via Montreal in March of ‘71. Only a day before he had been swimming in the sea basking in the warmth of Lebanon, now he was then confronted by a frigid Canadian winter. Although he had seen snow before in the Mountains of Syria, he couldn’t believe seeing snowbanks as high as his plane seat when he landed in Montreal!
When Tony’s brother-in-law picked him up at the Calgary airport, Tony watched in horror as the car slid wildly back-and-forth on the slick roads. “I don’t think that I’ll be able to drive here,” Tony thought at the time.
After moving in with his sister in Canada, Tony took whatever jobs he could find. He worked at a roofing job in the middle of winter for just 90 cents an hour. “I had never been so cold in my life, there were times that I was so cold that I cried. I didn’t have proper winter clothes, no winter jacket or warm footwear. I would slide on my feet just trying to walk down the street,” he recalled with a shiver. “There were times when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? But I stuck it out’”. Tony would not admit defeat.
After a while, Tony got a better-paying job, working for $3.00 an hour at a cabinet-making company. With his hard-earned savings, Tony opened “Tony’s Shoe Repair” shop in Market Mall. He regularly worked fourteen-hour days. During this time, he was able to save enough for a down payment on a small home in the Ogden neighbourhood of Calgary that cost just over $18,000. After three years in Calgary, Tony’s father came for a visit. Tony was proud to show his father the new life he was crafting in Canada.
In 1974, Tony returned to Lebanon to marry Ousyma, a girl he had known from his days growing up in Damascus. It was an arranged marriage between her parents and his father. On August 18th, 2019, Tony and Ousyma celebrated forty-five years of marriage.
When asked about some of the differences between Canada and Syria beyond the obvious contrasts in climate, Tony mentioned being paid. “When you do work for people in Syria, customers often won’t pay you until well after your work is done for them. Some don’t ever pay you. It can be hard because you don’t want to argue with your neighbours, friends and even family. Here, in Canada, people pay you right away. Sometimes, people appreciate my work so much, they give me a tip”, he said with pride.
Tony also marvels at the food selection in Canada. “Here in Canada, we have so much choice, it’s great! Sometimes when we are in Penticton, we pick up lots of fresh fruit.”
“Housing is also different here. In Canada, houses are so nice. We have so much space in Canada. In Syria, many people live in apartments, most cannot afford to have a house. When Syrians come to Canada, they think that we live so well.”
“Canada has excellent education and health care. We have a healthy democracy. We have many rights and freedoms. Canadians should NEVER take these things for granted. Canadians understand that if we all pay a little more in taxes, then more people are helped. More people have a chance to succeed. In some other countries, everyone is out for themselves first. Of course, we should all work hard. I have worked very hard in my life for my family, but I was raised to also help others. Canada is a country where we try to help one another, this is why I love Canada, it’s not just about me, it’s also about us.”
When asked what values he has tried to instil in his children, Tony responded, “Work hard. Don’t give up easily when you have a challenge in business, or in life. Do quality, honest work. Don’t cut corners. Give people the best you can, even if you have to lose money sometimes. You are your reputation.”
After many years of extremely hard work and shrewd investing, Tony now owns the buildings on Cochrane’s main street that includes “Tony’s Shoe Repair”, “Donair on the Run”, “Incredible Florist”, “Tony’s Western Wear” and “Cochrane Floors and More.” Tony’s son, Camille runs “Donair on the Run” that often receives rave reviews from customers who come from far and wide to enjoy the delicious donair, shawarma, falafels, baklava and more. Tony’s son Mike manages “Tony’s Western Wear”, whose selection of boots and clothing is impressive and their customer service is legendary. Clearly, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Elain family when it comes to running successful businesses. Just like Tony learned from his father, Tony’s sons are learning from him.
In addition to raising his own family. Tony Elain has sponsored 120 others from now war-torn Syria, who have made Canada their new home and, like Tony, they are working hard to make many valuable contributions to Canadian society.
Left to right: Mike, Tony and Camille Elain.
When asked what his proudest achievement is, Tony replied without hesitation, “My family!”
“I am VERY happy that I chose to live in Canada. Canada has been so good to my family and me. It is the greatest country in the world!”
The next time you’re walking downtown, drop in and say hi to Tony and his sons. Their family is a very special part of our Cochrane mosaic, something I’ve since learned after I took the time to get a little closer.
*If you know of others who have come to Cochrane from abroad and whose story should be celebrated in my “Mosaic” column, please get in touch, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This a cover photo I took of Jean Williamson for the NWT Air Explorer Magazine -Winter 1989. Jean was my principal at Maani Ulujuk Ilinniarivk in Rankin Inlet. Jean is one of the most thoughtful educators I have ever known. I’m proud to say that Helene and I became friends with Jean beyond teaching. She is without a doubt one of the kindest and most caring people I know. We would share wonderful meals and game nights playing mahjong with Jean in her lovely house near “Williamson Lake”. We often enjoyed her delicious char chowder and joke about her “Great buns!” Thank you, Jean, you are so very special!
I was fortunate to know what I wanted to do early in life.
I grew up in suburban Ottawa. My dad was an insurance salesman for Sun Life. My mother was a stay-at-home, mom. Despite not having much money, they always found a way to save so that I could go to YMCA camp in the summer. It was there that I realized that I loved helping kids learn every bit as much as I loved learning new things myself. I knew I wanted to become a teacher. This belief was cemented when my older sister Sandy went away to Queen’s University and later become a teacher. I have always admired my sister very much and hoped that this would also be my path.
Years later I experienced one of the proudest days of my life when I received a letter of acceptance from Queen’s University. I knew that I had taken a huge first step, but there was still a long way to go.
During my freshman year at Queen’s, I entered the (then) new Concurrent Teacher Education Program at the Faculty of Education. Unlike the one year Bachelor’s in Education, it gave students four years to study education within the walls of academia as well as practical, hands-on experience in various schools, classrooms, and grades while working concurrently on their undergrad degree. The program also gave us four years to reflect upon whether we truly wanted to become teachers.
Many of us in our formative years were told to “Get a good education, hard work and you’re future will be yours”. This is true, to a point. You also need some luck, what might be called, “preparation meeting opportunity”. Call it what you will, you need mentors to help guide, encourage and inspire you on your life’s journey.
I was fortunate to have had many wonderful mentors during this important period of professional growth and development; Jim Robson at Central Public and Jan Hartgerink at Centennial School, to recognize but a few of the supportive, encouraging teacher-mentors helped me immensely.
It was during this critical time that I was placed in “Section J”. I was the only male student-teacher in what would have been an all-female class. Our Section Leader was professor Clair Bailey. Throughout those four years, Professor Bailey always made himself available to talk with his students about their concerns or problems, be they academic, or personal. Perhaps his greatest gift to his students was his ability to listen. He read between the lines to try and allay our fears and celebrate our triumphs. In time, the title was dropped and he became “Clair”.
Clair introduced us to the beautiful world of children’s literature by sharing many rich examples of this genre. He cultivated in us a deep understanding of the critical role that literacy plays in the development of young people and in our broader society. He inspired us with professional stories and personal anecdotes that allowed us to connect with him beyond his role as a professor. Clair challenged us to take on the mantle of life-long learners. He wanted us to fully comprehend the value of a public education system in democratizing knowledge and opportunity for the young people who would be in our charge. These ideas have stayed with me throughout my decades as a professional educator teaching many thousands of different students in classrooms throughout Canada. I was humbled to learn that he regularly followed my career from afar.
On October 14, 2016, I was deeply honoured to deliver the Duncan McArthur Queen’s University Homecoming Lecture at the request of my old Alma Mater. What gave me immense pride was being able to thank many of my mentors personally; my sister Sandy, Jan Hartgerink, John MacPherson, principal of Kreterklerk School in (then) Eskimo Point, Professor Mac Freeman and Clair Bailey.
I was saddened to learn that Clair died on April 6th, 2018 in Kingston, Ontario.
I wish that others who pursue a career in education might be so fortunate as to have a mentor like Clair Bailey.
Thank you, Clair, I will always be grateful that you were such an important part of my life. You planted seeds in me that have been resewn countless times with thousands of others I have known. Your life mattered, and you helped me understand that mine would too. I can’t imagine a greater gift a teacher might give to a student.
Richard Harrington portrait by William Belsey.
(Then) Eskimo Point, N.W.T. August 1983.
CBC Radio Morningside Interview: Peter Gzowski with Richard Harrington (May 6, 1986)
For more information on the life and work of my friend, the late Richard Harrington, please see, https://www.widewalls.ch/artist/richard-harrington/