The following was written in collaboration by Professor Emeritus Roberto Perin and Associate Professor Gabriella Colussi-Arthur.
“A generous, welcoming and good-humoured man.” “Gentle, discreet and deeply dedicated to his work and family.” These are just two of the testimonials from friends and students to Professor Gabriele Scardellato who died on Aug. 8 after a brief and sudden illness.
Born in Treviso, Italy, a city close to Venice, Scardellato immigrated as a child with his family to Powell River, a pulp and paper town just north of Vancouver. As many immigrant children who contributed to the family economy, he took a job at age 13 in a bakery and then in a grocery store. To pay for his university studies, he worked summers at the pulp mill. He went on to complete a master’s degree at the University of Birmingham and a doctorate at the University of British Columbia in medieval history.
With a contract from Library and Archives Canada, Scardellato compiled an inventory of documents of Canadian interest for the early modern period contained in the Vatican Apostolic Archive in Rome (VAAR). As the VAAR was only open mornings, afternoons were spent at the Canadian Academic Centre in Italy (CACI) and were happily interrupted at 4 p.m. by a mandatory double espresso break at the local coffee bar. Occasionally there would be time for a meal at Settimio all’Arancio, a family-run trattoria close by Palazzo Cardelli where CACI was housed. It was there that his gradual transformation from a medievalist to an immigration specialist was effected.
Soon, Toronto beckoned with a position at the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO) as resource and publications specialist. In that capacity, he produced two valuable guides: the first to the Society’s oral history collections; and, the second to works published in the area of Canadian immigration history. He was also a valued member of the editorial board of the MHSO’s Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (UTP, 1999.)
Ever resourceful, when financial exigency forced the Society to scale back its operations, he sought and found new opportunities, acting as consultant to national museums and research centres. He also assumed the editorship of Ontario History for which he later received the Cruikshank Medal “presented on rare occasions to individuals who have performed with distinction on behalf of The Ontario Historical Society.” It was then too that he began teaching in the Italian Studies Department, University of Toronto. A talented photographer with impressive IT know-how, he provided the images and designed the website Places of Worship in West Toronto.
The most productive period of his life began in 2008 when he obtained a tenure-track position in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Linguistics at York University, followed by promotion to associate professor three years later. He was finally free to pursue his academic interests unencumbered by outside obligations. As the holder of the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian Canadian Studies, he obtained a major grant from the federal government’s Community Historical Recognition Programme to finance a full-length documentary on Canada’s internment of Italians during the Second World War. Titled The Italian Question, the film premiered at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2012. Two other documentaries on Italian immigrants, Saturnia and Noelle’s Journey, were supported by grants from his Chair.
“Gabriele Scardellato made many valuable contributions during his time as Chairholder of the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies at York University,” reads a statement from the Elia family: Valerie Elia, Paul Elia, Noelle Elia and Rochelle Zorzi. “Gabriele was instrumental in the making of Noelle’s Journey, a film that centred on Noelle Elia’s remembrances of her grandfather, Mariano Elia, and of Franco Grosso, another Italian immigrant. Two men from Calabria, who in different ways found success in their adopted land. Gabriele worked with Noelle to facilitate the move of Grosso’s popcorn cart into the Museum of History in Ottawa. Noelle’s Journey is a film that has importance beyond these two men because the topic of immigration has become ever more timely.
“For many who saw the film, the history of discrimination against Italians that he documented was surprising, even shocking, and Gabriele was passionate in making sure we remembered it. Thanks to Gabriele, the message was heard by all who viewed the film and was, for us, a powerful message.”
Scardellato was also the mastermind behind the Italian Canadian Archives Project (icap.ca), a national network of scholars, archivists and community organizers that collects, stores and shares historical material through community outreach, education and annual conferences in different parts of Canada.
He published widely, notably a co-authored book, Lawrence Grassi from Piedmont to the Rocky Mountains (UTP, 2015), on the famous mountain climber who opened up trails to nature lovers in the Rockies in the interwar years. To interpret more fully the internment story, he made groundbreaking use of photographs taken at the time in the camps. Italian Foodways Worldwide, which he co-edited and has just been published, should tap into the public’s keen interest in Italian cuisine(s). Left unfinished, unfortunately, is his most recent research on Charles-Honoré Catelli, the 19th century founder of the Catelli Pasta Company.
Scardellato gave countless papers at conferences in North and South America, as well as Europe. He also organized conferences and community events at York University with a variety of community partners, such as the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, the City of Vaughan and the Columbus Centre. In teaching, not only was he principal instructor in two cornerstone Italian Canadian Studies courses – “Migration, Immigration and Beyond: Italians in North America” and “Saints’ Lives and Black Madonnas: The Literary and Cultural Experience of Italian Canadians” – but he also oversaw important graduate scholarships and supervised graduate students in history. Among members of the scholarly and Italian Canadian community, including the Elia family, he was highly regarded and respected.
A man of many skills, he performed with the love and dedication of a true craftsman those of gardener, cabinet maker, cook, copy editor and typesetter, as well as those mentioned above. He had a loyal following among undergraduate and graduate students who valued his unassuming nature, dry wit, quiet charm and empathy. He was a devoted husband to Kathy, father to Matteo and Stephanie, and nonno to Rosalie and Camilla.