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At home on Dundas

The Maltese have moved away from Little Malta, but their culture remains

BY SHAWN MICALLEF

The Maltese flag flies above a small patch of land between Dundas Street West and St. Johns Road on the western edge of the Junction. This is Malta Park in Toronto's Malta Village, occupying just a few blocks along Dundas. This area was the vibrant heart of the Maltese diaspora in Canada. Though not many businesses or residents here these days are Maltese, the Dundas strip remains an important part of this small and dispersed community.

The name "Dundas Street" resonates with all Maltese Canadians; it certainly meant something to me, growing up in Windsor, where the only visible Maltese culture was in my relatives' suburban houses. Perhaps that explains why Maltese homes are full of wall maps showing the Maltese archipelago, souvenir "picture plates," Malta ashtrays, Malta clocks, Malta placemats and Malta fridge magnets: the smaller the country, the louder the artifact.

The mythic Toronto of my childhood imagination consisted of three things: the CN Tower, Mr. Dressup's house and Little Malta. We would take yearly trips to see Maltese friends in Milton, and make Sunday pilgrimages down to Dundas to eat at the Malta Bake Shop.

If you count people like me (half-bred and second-generation), the Maltese population in the GTA is about 20,000-25,000. Today, most of Toronto's Maltese live out in places like Milton. University of Toronto Professor John Portelli, who is researching Maltese-Canadians, has found there are concentrations of Maltese in west Etobicoke, Mississauga and further out in Brampton -- but nothing like the visible concentration on Dundas Street.

Other ethnic neighbourhoods have experienced the same suburban drain. The Italians moved from College Street, roughly following Dufferin out to Woodbridge, while Toronto's Jewish population followed Bathurst from Kensington (once known as the "Jewish Market") to Thornhill.

The first substantial wave of Maltese immigration to Canada occurred soon after the turn of the century. Many settled in the vicinity of St. Patrick's Shrine Church on McCaul at Dundas, where they held various Maltese events. The Maltese are devout Catholics and the church exerts a strong pull. Even St. Paul found time to shipwreck himself on the island -- you can all read about his Maltese adventure in the Bible (in Acts, Chapter 28, if you've got the Good Book handy). New immigrants were helped by Maltese priests and later by the Maltese Society of Toronto, established in 1922. The society helped purchase and erect St. Paul the Apostle church in 1931, establishing the Maltese presence in the Junction. Its claim to fame at the time: the only "national church" (built by parishioners) in North America.

I like to take people to the Malta Bake Shop, a block away from the church. Not just to get them to try to try the pastizzi and to "Taste of Malta's Delights" [sic] as the sign inside says, but to show them my secret corner of Toronto, one that has a picture of my great-uncle Johnny Catania on the wall. He was a Maltese comedian who entertained the troops in Malta while the Italian Air Force and the Luftwaffe did their best to bomb the island into the sea during WWII. In 1964, he gave up his Maltese television show to immigrate to Windsor with my dad's family. Each year, he made numerous trips up the 401 to Dundas Street, even hosting the Miss Malta of Toronto pageant in the years before he died. That his picture is on the wall makes Toronto feel even more like home to me. I often wonder how many other invisible, personal connections people have to places like this. Inside, the Maltese greet each other with an "alright?" rather than a "hello" and speak with a mixture of Maltese and English. It's the aural wallpaper I grew up with.

Since the 1920s, when Grazio Borg opened a grocery store here, the bake shop's location has long been a centre of Maltese life in the city. Antoinette Buttigieg, who runs the shop with her husband Charles, is an active member of the Maltese Canadian Business Association. She says they've lobbied the city to get vertical street banners installed that will mark Malta Village: a little gesture, but important to maintaining a small community's sense of place. Dundas Street is "like a symbol for the Maltese," says Portelli, "even though there is no new blood immigrating from Malta."

Joseph Cini has run Joe's Barbershop on Dundas since the 1950s. He still trims the hair of people he shared bomb shelters with back in Malta during the war. He saw a problem when the TTC decided to terminate the streetcar at Dundas West Station on Bloor. Instead of a continuous ride from downtown, people had to switch to a bus. "It's not practical. We had the Dundas streetcar. Nobody knew what the Junction bus was," he says. Dundas is not a sexy name or a particularly beautiful street but the sense of place was and is strong. Cini is one of the last holdouts though: his own daughter is moving to Milton.

Though most of the residents are gone, the strip still survives. "If you come here after church on Sunday, there will be a lot of people," says George Mallia, editor and publisher of the local Maltese language newspaper, L-Ahbar ("The News"). "Some come once a month to hear a Maltese mass. Certainly they come on feast days." With such a decentralized community, Mallia's paper, like Dundas itself, is one of the things that give it a sense of unity, not just in Toronto, but across Canada.

The problem is people like me aren't moving back. I like that Little Malta is there, and it's comforting, but my allegiances to other parts of the city are just as strong. Sal D'Angelo of Junction Realty hasn't sold any houses to Maltese folks returning to the neighbourhood, but the culture is a big part of the area for him. "Malta Village should stay in the Junction," he says. "Maltese people should stay here." I hope a few of them stay around, too; losing Little Malta would be like losing the CN Tower.

Shawn Micallef is an editor of Spacing magazine and a founder of the [murmur] project.

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