A Tribute to Gabriele Pietro “Gabe” Scardellato (1951-2020)

A Tribute to Gabriele Pietro “Gabe” Scardellato (1951-2020)

The OHS remembers Gabe Scardellato, January 3, 1951 – August 8, 2020

Our country has lost a distinguished scholar and teacher who made a tremendous contribution to Canadian history. The OHS has lost a gentle giant. We have also lost a heritage champion, historian, author, editor and managing editor, member, lecturer, workshop leader, volunteer, donor and one of our most loyal and trusted friends.

Gabe joined the OHS in November 1988. He was then the education officer for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO). On behalf of OHS and MHSO, I had just launched the History of Ontario’s Peoples Grant Program (1988-1993). Gabe immediately saw the need and positive benefits of providing grants to grassroots organizations to document and showcase the contributions of the different peoples of Ontario to the history of Canada.

In 1992, when the historic John McKenzie House in Willowdale was threatened with demolition, Gabe was a strong voice for its preservation and for it to become the OHS’s new provincial headquarters. Skilled in carpentry himself, he took a keen interest in its careful restoration (1993-1996) and always generously donated to our building fund.

In 1995, Gabe enthusiastically supported the OHS when it was forced to establish a Cemetery Defence Fund to protect Ontario’s cemeteries from real estate development. He was appalled that the Province of Ontario had just ordered it was in the public interest to relocate an historic cemetery for the private benefit of developers. This would set a dangerous precedent. Gabe was incensed at the lack of respect for our fellow citizens and their final resting places. He was appalled at the resulting loss of the hidden stories behind our history.

This was again a fundamental matter of principle for Gabe. Whose history is important? He felt that if the OHS truly embraced a mandate of pluralism and aspired to represent a membership comprising all Ontario’s cultures and religions, then OHS had a duty and responsibility to relentlessly defend everyone’s history including their sacred lands and burial places. As a student and author on the struggle between fascists and anti-fascists, he was also keenly aware of and sensitive to what was at stake.

Over the decades, Gabe faithfully donated to OHS Cemetery Defence Fund as the Society struggled for the public interest.

From 1999 to 2003, Gabriele served as both Editor and Managing Editor of the Society’s scholarly journal Ontario History. During that period, Gabriele built on the legacy of former editor Dr. Jean Burnet, encouraging a wide variety of primary research and inclusive scholarship. Gabriele broke new ground and pioneered many themes and fields, providing a broader and more comprehensive portrait of Ontario’s diverse history with articles on Indigenous history, immigration and the working class, women’s and gender history, Black history, education, forestry, and sport. Gabriele also oversaw three special themed issues on museums, First Nations issues, and educating young people in twentieth-century Ontario.

In the Spring 2000 issue, Gabriele invited Dr. Dean Jacobs (Walpole Island First Nation) to act as Guest Editor, and together they published “Continuity and the Unbroken Chain: Issues in the Aboriginal History of Ontario.” Jacobs wrote, “This special issue of Ontario History is a significant milestone for Aboriginal history… as it is the first issue to be edited by an Aboriginal. The Aboriginal history of Ontario must be seen in a holistic way, which is the way in which we view our lands and waters. In Aboriginal history it is critical to have such an approach, for without it, our people and history will not be understood… indeed, for First Nations in Ontario, history is our heart and soul.”

Gabriele’s editorship of the Society’s scholarly journal contributed immeasurably not only to the diversity of Ontario’s history but also to the development of the discipline of history.

In 2000, Gabriele helped to plan and implement the OHS’s highly successful symposium “Buon appetito! Italian Foodways in Ontario,” which included his own presentation, entitled “From Garden to Table: Italian Canadians as Urban Peasant Farmers.”

In this wonderfully insightful paper Gabe wrote, “When I review my efforts to integrate my parents’ experience into a general overview of Italian immigration to, and settlement in Canada, I am struck by the prominent role that food and foodways appears to have occupied. That wrenching act we refer to as immigration is itself about food: more specifically, it is about not having enough food, and dreaming about a world or place, possibly a country, where one might be able to earn enough to have enough food – ubi panis, ibi patria.”

Oh my goodness, to savour Gabe’s grape jelly and tomato sauce.

In 2008, Gabriele was appointed The Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies at York University. He was beloved and respected by both his colleagues and students.

In 2009, as a publisher of a scholarly journal, OHS was threatened by an unfounded third-party copyright lawsuit. In our hour of need, Gabe provided his wisdom, expertise and most importantly his moral support and friendship. These ingredients were invaluable in preparing our winning legal case.

In 2010, Gabe was a founding member and the mastermind behind the Italian Canadian Archives Project (icap.ca) which was created to ensure the preservation of Italian-Canadian history. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, ICAP has grown beyond Gabe’s wildest dreams to become a national network and registered charity, engaging everyone interested in the Italian-Canadian experience thus contributing to Canada’s narrative, past and present. OHS remains a founding member of ICAP.

In 2011, Gabriele was instrumental in helping the OHS to develop a multi-year business plan to transform and modernize Ontario History into an online resource that is now available to an ever-growing global readership eager to learn about what has been written about life in Ontario. Last April, Gabe was thrilled about this digital achievement given that so many around the world had this new access to and were very interested in Ontario’s history.

In 2013, the OHS awarded Gabriele the Cruikshank Gold Medal which honours an individual who has performed with distinction on behalf of the Society.

The kind of history Gabe loved and promoted was popular history in the truest sense – history about, and by, the people of any community, but especially those that were not traditionally, until very recently, written into the official record. His working-class immigrant background gave him a profound compassion for, sensitivity to, and empathy with, all of Ontario’s peoples.

Gabe’s understanding of history was about lived experience as much as academic training. That is why he volunteered to conduct over 45 OHS workshops for the Society’s membership, often in remote communities. He had the magic grassroots touch and that is why his workshops were so popular with our membership. One of his workshops, “Tell Us Your Story and In Your Own Words,” embodied his public history approach and its attraction.

Because of his own roots, Gabe did not find easy entry into, or welcome within, the established academic networks, which have been fairly exclusive and certainly were when he was finding his footing as a scholar of the immigrant experience. But this is also what made him such a fine scholar – and a fine teacher and community-builder – his sense of being the ‘outsider’ in one circle was overcome by his ‘insider’ status in the ones that meant most to him and his work. And these are also, of course, the attributes that made him a fine and unique human being. And of course, all of that is why Gabe made the OHS a better, more open and inclusive provincial historical society.

The sudden and unexpected passage of this magnificent, rare shooting star has, I know, shocked and gutted many of us. On behalf of OHS and its membership, I send our warmest regards and condolences to Gabe’s wonderful partner Kathy, his children, Matteo (Kristin) and Stephanie (Alex), grandchildren, extended family and all his friends and colleagues.

The pandemic cheats us now from honouring his life together. But I hope our experiences and memory of Gabe will help us somehow move forward. I see Gabe waving to all of us. “Come on – there is still so much work to do, so many battles to fight… and then we can all eat and drink together.” We have Gabe’s solid, steady shoulders to stand on with a legacy to inspire us all.

Rob Leverty
Executive Director
The Ontario Historical Society