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Rosario Marchese’s 50 years in Toronto

May 10th, 2011 · 2 Comments

By Susan Oppenheim

Rosario Marchese, right, has been a sitting MP in Trinity-Spadina since 1990. Photo credit: Perry King/Gleaner News

From his beginnings in Toronto 50 years ago as a 9-year-old Italian immigrant, to his position today as the NDP Caucus Chair at Queen’s Park, not much in Rosario Marchese’s approach to life seems to have changed. He has remained solidly grounded to family, community, and Canada. His career has centered on education and advocacy, first as a teacher of English and French, then eight years as a school board trustee, and 21 consecutive years as an MPP, the last 17 in Trinity-Spadina.

 

One can easily find Marchese’s accomplishments online, but I want to know how some events in his life as an immigrant, as a family member, and as a public servant have affected him. I had lunch with Marchese in the dining room of the Queen’s Park legislative building.

Susan Oppenheim: Your first memory in Canada?

Rosario Marchese: We walked immediately through the snow, immediately from Dovercourt and Dundas to get fresh bread at a big Italian bakery on Euclid Avenue.

He, his mum, and brother arrived by plane after waiting five years to join their father and siblings. The six of them stayed in a second-floor flat owned by relatives of relatives from their town in Calabria, until they were able to buy their home on Shaw south of Bloor, where his brother Graziano lives today. In 1961 under Diefenbaker, they faced a recession and immigration options shutting down, and finding work, any work, was exceptionally hard. Acculturation was also not easy.

R.M.: I was in grade 4 in Italy and they put me in grade 3 in Canada .The teacher asked me a math question and I didn’t know what she was asking—not because I didn’t know what to do, because math was easy for us—but because I couldn’t understand the question. They moved me back to grade 2—that was a very painful memory. It was a tough experience, and it was silly and stupid because kids can learn a language very quickly. I skipped grade 6 but by then the new math had come in and the teacher said, ‘Here, read the book,’ and I couldn’t do it on my own. There was no support in transition, and it affected me terribly, and a lot of other immigrants. From time to time I raise this personal experience in the legislature.

S.O.: You have described your wife Evelyne as your companera—not wife, not partner, but partner in everything. How did you meet?

R.M.: I was working at the TDSB and she was working there too. I remember seeing her at the [Cafe] Diplomatico one day coming in. We would always go to Sicilian and Bar Diplomatico on College. It was a cold day and she was wearing a poncho and she raised her arm to unfurl the poncho—that was so, so stylish—I must admit I fell in love that day. We started working together. She arrived in the late ’60s from Chile after the coup with General Pinochet killing the Socialist democratically elected President Allende. Evelyne was the most political of the family, and her mother was a humanist to the core who knew everybody.

That is where Evelyne gets a lot of her personality from. It is a frightening thing to think about. It raises the hair on your arms and your face. Chile had had a history of left elections and electing left leaning politicians, but America was instrumental in bringing Pinochet to power and bringing Allende down. When you think about the history, I don’t know how they survived it. I don’t think I could have.”

S.O.: Dooney’s, an Annex institution, owned and operated by local celebrity Graziano Marchese, and frequented by writers, intellectuals, and media types, fought off Starbucks’s attempted takeover in 1995 (“Save Dooney’s” is still scribbled in the concrete on the corner of Borden and Bloor). Tell me about this.

R.M.: It was one of the most fascinating stories because no one has ever won a fight against Starbucks that I am aware of. The owner Mr. Hix wanted to kick my brother out after 15 years and the rent was incredibly high. His sister came in, with a smile, and said “Graz, it’s only business, you’re out of here.” It was a terrible shock. The woman used to come to eat at the restaurant—it was free. It was exceptionally ugly to have her come with a smile on the day the lease came up. The point is commercial tenants have no rights—once your lease is up they can let you go without any notice. So we talked, and we talked to friends, and we started to organize to embarrass Starbucks because the owner had made a deal with Starbucks for ten years. We mounted a public relations campaign and we had a lot of good people.

We demonstrated at Hix’s book launch and then in front of every Starbucks that was in the riding—about 22 articles were written and it created such an embarrassment for Starbucks that they decided to pull out. And Hix said “If you pull out I am going to sue you.” So Starbucks and my brother united against the landlord and they won that legal battle and I am happy to report that the owner had to pay $175,000 in legal fees and it made me feel good. I thought it was wonderful retribution and my brother stayed there for another ten years and then set up Annex Live on Brunswick.

S.O.: When Steven Lewis’ son Avi was asked “Why did you become a journalist and filmmaker? Why didn’t you become a politician?” He answered, “I saw what it did to my family.” You will run again this year—this time with your recently retired wife actively at your side. Any comments?

R.M.: Avi is absolutely right. For that reason a lot of children who come from a very political family end up not running because they do not want to be part of it. They end up being progressive like their parents, but they want the freedom to do what they like. Politics engulfs you for a very long time. It isn’t just the media that could be after you depending on what you say, or who you are, it is consuming because you have to be out there very, very often.

You have to be in the community. You have to go to all sorts of meetings within the party and outside the party and once you are elected, if you want to stay elected, you really have to be out there a lot. So between obligations at Queen’s Park, being the critic for something or other, and serving your community where there are over 125,000 people, it’s not easy. It can be very, very challenging. You have to maintain the energy levels to be out there—to be visible. You have to have good staff who help you to put out the word. If you don’t have that support, you are on your own. The work we do is highly political and people get burned out, they don’t stay long, and you have to retrain over and over.

S.O.: I understand constituents can receive updates about events and issues through the website as well as by calling your offices on Dundas Street and at Queen’s Park. Many events are posted on Facebook and updated in local papers like the Gleaner and people can attend at the legislature or watch TV when the house is in session as well. So why do people still say, “Well, what is he doing?”

R.M.: Often we say people don’t know what we are doing, and we have to get out there, but we don’t have franking privileges [the ability to mail things for free]. We have to work provincially within a budget. If you hire staff, you do not have the money for a $17,000 newsletter every year. Seventy-five per cent of the 125,000 mailings can simply get thrown out. Emailing is helping, but gathering those addresses is a slow process, one email at a time. I was able to persuade the premier that MPPs need a newsletter and we all got $11,000 towards that, so we are putting one out after May 2.

S.O.: We will certainly be looking forward to this newsletter and keeping track of everything you are doing. By the way, I thought the lunch was delicious. Thank you Rosario.

Rosario Marchese is currently the NDP Critic for Education, GTA Issues and Training, Colleges and Universities. For more information, visit www.rosariomarchese.ca or find him on Facebook.

Tags: General

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 susan oppenheim // May 10, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    well it is so wonderful to see this published online today-it is rosario’s birthday!!!!

  • 2 Yolande Grisé // May 11, 2011 at 7:46 am

    Cher Rosario,
    Bon anniversaire! Quelle joie d’avoir de vos nouvelles par l’intermédiaire de mon compagnon (Duncan Cameron), qui m’a expédié cet article de journal hier à Ottawa, où je passe quelques moments avant de retourner à Vancouver où nous habitons depuis 2005.
    Je garde de vous (et de votre adorable Evelyne) un magnifique souvenir. Puissions-nous vous revoir (après de trop longues années) à Toronto en 2011.
    Happy Birthday again.
    Warmest regards,
    Yolande Grisé
    President-Elect
    Royal Society of Canada