Rossella Lario: “Mai Mollare!” (Never Give up!)


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!”

Jean Williamson in Rankin Inlet Winter, 1989

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!

Clair Bailey: Teacher, Mentor and Friend

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 at 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 in 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 a 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 that a teacher might give to a student.

Linda Pemik: “Northern Educator Extraordinaire!”

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Linda Pemik recently.

Linda was many things to many people, so I will leave it to others to share their stories, when and if they are able, but I wanted to take some time to reflect upon the ways that her life touched mine.

I first came to know Linda when my wife Hélène and I began our teaching careers in (then) Eskimo Point, Northwest Territories in 1982.

As Linda had done before us, we left the familiar confines of southern Canada and journeyed North to live and learn in this predominantly Inuit community of less than a thousand souls whose homes seemed to fervently cling to the Western shores of Hudson Bay.

 

This time in our lives was both exciting and daunting. We wanted to fit into this traditional, dry community. We desperately wanted to make a difference in the lives of the children we had come to serve, but with so much to learn, we needed a someone to help us find our way, to be that bridge between the world we knew and a world we wanted to know better. Thankfully for us, Linda Pemik was just such a person.

Linda had begun her northern learning journey years before us. She fell in love and married Paul. She and Paul would raise four children; Kathleen, Pauline, Paul Jr. and Evan, who, along with future grandchildren, were the loves of her life. But I will let others tell those tales.

Hélène and I taught her daughter Kathleen at Kreterklerk School and I became “Uncle Beelo” away from school.

We shared stories and laughed so many times that often our sides hurt. During one meal together I remember Linda recounting the time when her daughter Kathleen innocently wandered into a local church and soon thereafter found herself being immersed in a tub of water as she was unwittingly being baptised. Kathleen eventually came home, soaked to the skin, still wondering what had just happened to her! I can still hear Linda’s heartfelt laughter ringing in my ears as she regaled us with this tale.

Linda loved to sing, which was lucky for us, as she had a beautiful, resplendent voice that interpreted a song’s lyrics with a joyous clarion call.

Linda, Hélène and I all shared the proud academic roots of being graduates of Queen’s University. I’m pretty sure that we did a few “Oil Thighs” in sealskin and caribou kamiks (boots), much to the amusement of local Inuit friends and neighbours.

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Linda advised Hélène about sewing parkas so they would be Arctic winter-ready while remaining stylish. She invited us to her home for caribou stew and fresh Arctic Char. She loved to cook and bake on her large, warm black wood burning cook stove. The wonderful aromas that wafted from her home welcomed all and sundry.

Linda was far more than a domestic goddess.  She was a thoughtful, strong-willed woman who knew her own mind and didn’t suffer fools gladly.

As a new teacher in 1982, I had brought a computer into my grade four classroom and was teaching my students how to code using a programming language call LOGO that was created for children by Dr. Seymour Papert and his colleagues at the world-renowned M.I.T. Media Lab. While my own Superintendent was questioning the use of a computer with my young students, which I have been often told was the first computer in the North, Linda’s natural curiosity and sharp intellect had her regularly asking me questions as to the pedagogical validity of using this tool with her daughter and the other children. She kept me on my toes and I’m so glad she did. By thinking through my responses to her thoughtful questions, I was able to clarify why I had brought a computer to my classroom and what benefits it brought in support of teaching and learning.

 

 

 

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After her children were older, Linda began to work for Arctic College. This same sharp mind and ability to professionally seek important answers through critical thinking and analytical questioning skills, laid a strong foundation for her journey as a lifelong learner. In time, Linda became Senior Academic Officer at Nunavut Arctic College.

In 2000, Linda completed a Master’s degree in Adult and Continuing Education and Teaching from the University of Calgary.

She took the EC&I 831: Social Media & Open Education course from Alec Couros at the University of Regina. In no small part due to this course, Linda became active on social media and started her own professional blog, “Learning Out in the Open”  to which I contributed from time to time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Linda_PemikIn 2013 she completed a Professional Certificate in Online Teaching, Higher Education/Higher Education Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I was deeply honoured and humbled when Linda once told me that I was one of Canada’s “Ed-Tech” pioneers and that I was one of her “Ed-Tech” heroes going back to our early days in (then) Eskimo Point.

Linda walked-the-walk of a true, lifelong learner. Her curiosity about the world kept her always looking to the future, her passion for life ensured she was always present with those in her company, her love for family and community kept her grounded with a moral compass that pointed straight and true. Truth be told, Linda was a hero of MINE!

 

 

 

 

To Paul, Kathleen, Pauline and Paul Jr., Evan and the rest of Linda’s family; no words can heal the deep sense of loss you are feeling, but perhaps it may help a little to know that you are NOT alone in your sorrow. Your mom deeply touched SO many other lives. If it’s true that, “Teachers plant seeds for trees whose shade they will never see“, there are entire forests providing shade because of your mother!

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(left to right) Pauline, Linda and Kathleen Pemik

When you are confronted with one of life’s many challenges, take a moment to reflect on the question, “What would mom do?” The answer will guide you well as you go forward on your own journeys. Please know that she will never be truly gone as long as you hold her in your heart.

TAIMA,

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