How does the daughter of immigrant parents from Brancaleone, a fishing village in southern Calabria, become a Superior Court Judge in Canada? This is the first question I posed to Madam Justice Giovanna Roccamo when she spoke to me by telephone from her Ottawa office. Her voice was both welcoming and confident, and she didn't hesitate to credit her parents for her accomplishments. "The values they taught me underlie everything I do," she said. It was easy to identify the sentiments within her words; here was a daughter who had both love and pride for her parents.
Justice Roccamo said her parents are like many Italian Canadian immigrants; their values include a strong work ethic and a drive to create a better life, yet they voiced no precise plans for their children's future. The children were not directed into specific areas of study or profession. Instead Domenico and Vittoria Toscano provided their children with a model for success, and that model had its seeds planted back in Brancaleone. Domenico was the oldest of eleven children. With his father injured in the war, it fell to Domenico to leave school early and help support the family.
At an early age Domenico knew the value of hard work, doing odd jobs for other families in the village. It was at one of these odd jobs, working for Vittoria's father, that Domenico met his future wife. When Domenico emigrated to Canada in the late fifties, he started work immediately, shoveling snow from the tracks, so that he could marry Vittoria two years later, by proxy, and bring her to Canada. By then he had moved on to construction work. Vittoria worked hard in the new country, as well, at low-skill low-paying jobs like seamstress and waitress. This was the beginning of "the better life" they envisioned for themselves in Canada. Giovanna Roccamo speaks of her parents as "people without vice - real family people with a close-knit circle of family and friends."
Domenico and Vittoria produced three daughters in three years and a son ten years later. The children grew up well fed, well dressed and well disciplined. Strongly aware and proud of their Italian roots, the family was also raised proudly Canadian. Her parents didn't impose their views of the world on their children. In their new Canadian environment they realized they didn't have full control and so they relied on their children to teach them the traditions of the new country.
There was little longing for the old country or the old ways partly because a few trips back to Italy showed Domenico and Vittoria that things had changed dramatically in Italy. Giovanna Roccamo describes her parents' awareness as "a real severing of the limb" when "you understand that your Canadian environment is more home than your Italian roots."
The parents guided by example, passing on their strong work ethic, their love of family and friends, their generosity as well as their wisdom about expenditures. At university, Giovanna Toscano took a variety of subjects including English, political science and history. Then a friend proposed that they write the law school entrance exams. 'It was more a social connection than a desire to enter law," she says. In spite of this, she was accepted to law school and her friend was not (though she reapplied and got in later). With only two years of university behind her she was one of the youngest students in the class. Until then, she felt she had lived a rather sheltered and protected life: law school was the place where she matured and made friends that she still has today.
What do Vittoria and Domenico Toscano think of their daughter's appointment to Canada's Superior Court? According to Judge Roccamo, her parents are people of few words who remain immensely proud of their roots and their family. The Judge herself is humble about her accomplishments, preferring to turn the spotlight away from herself and her appointment and back to her family and her upbringing. She speaks highly of her sisters' and brother's accomplishments, but she returns again to the example set by her parents. The family values that Judge Roccamo praises so highly in her parents have helped her to raise her daughter and three stepchildren. With a family of four children aged eleven to sixteen, Judge Roccamo describes her life as a mother as "sometimes sacrificial" but finds it's the right balance that makes her sane: 'Work is important but we need the warmth of good relationships."
Her children keep her connected with a fresh outlook in the same way that she and her siblings were "conduits to Canadian culture" for their parents some forty years before. Some would say Giovanna Roccamo is a role model for other Italian Canadian women but her response downplays that compliment as well. "It's what I hear but it's not in my consciousness to be a role model. It's an added benefit to my community if I'm perceived as a role model." By the end of our conversation I had come to see how much Madam Justice Giovanna Roccamo is like her parents: loving, accomplished, proud, modest, hard-working and most importantly a role model. Like her parents, Giovanna Toscano Roccamo exemplifies the possibilities for an Italian Canadian woman raised with unconditional love and a drive to create a better life.
Maria Coletta McLean is a Toronto writer and business-woman. She is the author of My Father Came from Italy (2000).