Presenting: Maria Minna – An Italian-Canadian Immigrant Story and a Life-Long Fight for Social Justice

In 1992 she was elected as the President of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, a duty which she gladly accepted. A year later, Jean Chretien asked her to run in the Federal Election and Maria agreed. It was weird seeing her name on a brochure. Maria hated asking people for money or to vote for her; this simply felt awkward to her. But then she thought the only way to fight for people would be to get elected, so she accepted a necessary evil.

Once in parliament she pushed hard for a national child care policy, and the Child Tax Credit. She was part of the humorously nicknamed “Tax the Rich Committee” which instituted the National Child Benefit for low-income families. Maria often visits schools and talks to children about governance. One child pointed out that this money helped his mother buy milk and food.

Maria Minna has strong opinions: she supports a public health care system 100% and will never accept a hybrid system. She feels it’s a slippery slope once you start privatizing a certain part of the health care system. Some time ago she was hosting a delegation of Italian politicians who could not believe that wealthy people and regular or even low-income Canadians would go to the same doctors and sit in the same waiting rooms together.

In her Beaches – East York riding, some of the achievements that Maria has provided for the area include the Main Square Community Recreation Centre, which included $5 million of federal funds that were matched by the city. In addition, Maria obtained federal funding for a series of overflow waste water retainer tanks along the Boardwalk which were part of a federal infrastructure investment program. In total Maria has brought about $25 million of federal funding into her riding.

The life of a politician can be surprisingly tough: Maria spends Monday to Thursday or sometimes Monday to Friday in Ottawa, in the House of Commons, attending committee and caucus meetings. For the weekends she returns to Toronto to attend weekend events in her riding and to interact with her constituents. She explained that her job has no downtime – you are on call 24 hours 7 days a week. She continued that there is no point getting into politics if you are not willing to accept this schedule.

As far as Canada’s political system is concerned, most politicians come from a broad variety of professions. Maria clearly expressed that she feels that Canada is a very successful 21st century nation. Canada has one of the most transparent electoral processes. Even geographically close countries such as the United States and Mexico have had persistent issues with election scandals while Canada has not been tainted by such problems at all. Although the population is sometimes cynical about politicians, from Maria’s experience, the vast majority of them, regardless of party affiliation, has good intentions. Naturally she feels very supportive of the Liberal party, and states that in 13 years of Liberal rule, Canada changed from a country on the verge of bankruptcy with more than 11% unemployment into one of the most successful developed nations.

Maria with Ofra Nissani and Janette Brathwaite from the Boa Boutique

Maria added that she feels that the long-running Liberal government turned the country around, started to systematically lower the deficit and the unemployment rate and created thousands of new jobs based on building a strong infrastructure and making investments in the nation. An Innovation Fund was established for new technologies and to create 1000 chairs of research at universities throughout Canada. Centres for Health Research were created to invest in people and their health. Maria expresses very clearly that you cannot just cut taxes without reinvesting the money into the country and its people.

Unfortunately, Maria says, there was a change in government, and when the Liberals lost the election in 2006 they handed over a very healthy economy. She added that the new Conservative government has proceeded to decimate the National Childcare Program, they have cut the Innovation Fund, and she deplores that they have taken away the mandate from the “Status of Women” in Canada since the Conservatives feel that Canadian women already have equality, even though they still only earn 70 cents to the dollar.

In addition to some of these serious issues we also had a chance to discuss more everyday type of topics. One of Maria’s favourite pastimes is to stroll along Queen Street, buy presents and cap a nice outing off with a coffee, tea or breakfast. On a nice summer day she likes to sit by the lake on a rock, which makes her feel like she is on holidays. The many events that happen on Queen Street East also entice Maria to come out, and there are a whole host of them: School Spring Fairs, community centre festivals, church bazaars, in addition to the big flagship events: the Beaches Jazz Festival, the Easter Parade and the Christmas Tree Lighting. During last year’s Yard Sale for the Cure, Maria came out to meet some of the people who participated and thanked them for supporting this important cause.

Maria was also part of a recent tree planting in the Glen Stewart Ravine that was held in honour of Bob Hunter, Toronto’s most well-known environmentalist who passed away recently. Other initiatives that Maria really appreciates are Movies at the Fox: free outings to movies organized and sponsored by the Beach Rotary Club. At Christmas there is a big party for seniors, and after a free movie all the seniors head to St. Aidan’s Church where Quigley’s Bar and Bistro generously sponsors a lunch for 300 people.

Another important community organization that Maria wholeheartedly supports is Neighbourhood Link/Senior Link, a non-profit social service agency that provides services primarily in east Toronto. Since 1975, with the assistance of over 500 volunteers and 160 staff, this organization helps more than 6500 people annually. Maria was instrumental in getting this organization up and running by connecting Senior Link, which had been focusing exclusively on elderly residents, with COSTI, one of Toronto’s foremost immigrant settlement organizations.

Together these agencies were going to provide employment and job search services. Today Neighbourhood Link has become even more comprehensive and offers a variety of health and caregiver services, housing and employment services as well as social recreation services. Maria mentioned that SeniorLink’s response to the blackout in 2003 was phenomenal: they contacted more than 1000 seniors who were known to be on oxygen, and delivered backup power generators, flashlights and candles to them to make sure that they could stay healthy and safe. Maria added that there are a number of great organizations in the neighbourhood that make this community work.

During a visit to the Antik Bazaar with Sharon Iseman and Joseph Edwards

Our lunch was finished and we headed off on one of Maria’s favourite activities: a stroll along Queen Street to check out some of the eclectic shops that provide a really diverse range of goods and services. On a nice Saturday afternoon with temperatures that had finally come up above Arctic levels, we headed east on Queen Street from the Honeybee. The first store we popped into was Latitude for Living, an eclectic design and home décor retail store. Right next to Latitude is Kids at Home, a store that features blankets, strollers, duvet covers, daybeds and many more items needed by young families, many of whom consider the Beach their favourite neighbourhood to relocate to.

Just a bit further east we headed into Pippins Tea Company Inc., where we met the owner Barbara DeAngelis and her assistant Tamsin Salter. Pippins is an old time tea shop that carries a wide assortment of teas, tea wares, tea cuisine, kitchenware and gifts. It reminded me a bit of an old-style drug store with its wooden counters and canisters full of tea.

Our next stop was a funky boutique called Boa which features colourful dresses and stylish tops. The young owner Ofra Nissani inquired whether there was any way she could get involved in tree planting and other environmental issues in the area, and Maria recommended her to connect with Alex Winch, a big environmentalist in the Beach.

Maria’s time was running out since she had to head back to her constituency office for another meeting, but we had time for one more stop: we popped into the Antik Bazaar where owner Joseph Edwards was a little shy at first, but then opened up and told us that his antiques and collectibles store was recently selected by mystery shoppers and featured in a beautiful colour book called “Treasures of Ontario Mystery Shoppers”. His partner Sharon Iseman came in shortly after and we had a chance to connect with her as well. Many of the items in this store reminded Maria of her mother-in-law’s house, who used to be an avid collector herself. We even briefly talked about the Beach Hebrew Institute, and gave Sharon instructions how to get there since as son is currently looking for a synagogue in Toronto’s East End.

It was time to get going and I gave Maria a quick ride to her constituency office just up the road on Danforth Avenue. We had a good time talking about Italian culture and language, particularly since I am considering doing an international travel assignment to the South of Italy in the near future. The last couple of hours had been great; I had connected with a like-minded individual who for decades has been a strong advocate for social justice, equal rights and protection for society’s most vulnerable, and we had a chance to enjoy some of the lovely window-shopping opportunities that Queen Street East offers on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

Interesting ice formations along the breakwaters in the Beach

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