The first-ever leader of the Ontario Liberals was a guy named Brown. They’ve also had leaders named Mowat and Ross and Peterson and Hepburn. And there’s been a McKellar and a MacKay, a McLeod and a McGuinty.
But in the 163-year history of the party — that’s right, it predates Confederation — there’s never been a leader with a last name like Del Duca.
Strangely enough, despite the fact that Italian-Canadians have always made up an important part of the Liberal coalition, none of the 32 previous permanent or interim leaders of the provincial party has ever been from that community. For some reason, the job has overwhelmingly gone to men with ethnic roots from England, Scotland, or Ireland.
Enter Steven Del Duca.
Yes, the newest Liberal leader is half Scottish, on his mother’s side, and he did have some fun on Saturday, saying that he’d almost worn his kilt for his convention speech but that some wise advisers had talked him out of it.
But make no mistake, Del Duca is of the Italian community. His wife, Utilia, and their two daughters live in Woodbridge, the heart of York Region’s Italian life. His grandfather arrived in Canada from Italy in 1951, his father in 1958, and Del Duca mentioned that in his speech as well. And it’s a sign of how far Ontario has come that I can’t once recall hearing during the course of the Liberal leadership campaign any reference to Del Duca’s ethnicity.
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It wasn’t always thus.
Again, quite oddly for a party that has depended so much on the Italian community for support, only five Italian-Canadians have contested the leadership of the Ontario Liberals over the past 100 years, since modern leadership conventions began. That’s five candidates out of 88 who’ve sought the job.
Italians have fared even worse in the other major parties. Of the 54 Progressive Conservatives who’ve sought the leadership over the past century, not a single candidate has had an Italian last name (although Patrick Brown’s mother’s maiden name is Tascona). The NDP has never had an Italian leader either. That party has been choosing leaders for 78 years in Ontario. Of its 27 contestants, only one — Tony Silipo, in 1996 — was from the Italian community. And he came last at that convention, which was won by Howard Hampton.
Back in 1992, a then 45-year-old former cabinet minister named Greg Sorbara became the first-ever Italian-Canadian to seek the Ontario Liberal leadership. While he finished a respectable third (losing to Lyn McLeod), he later acknowledged that there were parts of Ontario where being of Italian heritage was simply a non-starter for his candidacy.
“If I was able to get beyond some of the stereotyping in the GTA, rural Ontario was a different story,” he emailed me this weekend. “I remember the chill in Huron-Bruce where I could not get beyond the ethnic label that defined me. The whispering campaign was simple. It had nothing to do with political skills. [Other candidates] were safer choices.”
Four others from the Italian community followed Sorbara in pursing the Liberal leadership. In 1996, it was Joe Cordiano who brought more than 80 per cent of his delegates to Dalton McGuinty at 4:30 in the morning, enabling McGuinty to claim the prize. Annamarie Castrilli also contested that convention and also moved to McGuinty after dropping off the ballot.
Until Del Duca’s victory this past weekend, the best showing by any Italian-Canadian candidate had been seven years ago, when former Windsor MPP Sandra Pupatello actually led on the first two ballots (Kathleen Wynne won the third).
“I am very proud of my Italian heritage,” Del Duca told me after the convention, during which he confirmed that, unlike Sorbara, he had never once encountered any anti-Italian sentiment on the leadership hustings. “[The people] don’t care about where you came from or what your last name is,” he said.
On social media, some acknowledged the historic nature of Del Duca’s win. Liberal supporter Simone Racanelli tweeted: “I didn’t realize how special this was until I realized it’s the 80th anniversary of [prime minister] Mackenzie King signing a law that identified Italians as enemy aliens and legal to put them in internment camps. Steven is realizing the dream of thousands of Italian immigrants like my grandparents.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary Gerald Butts tweeted: “Hearty congratulations to @StevenDelDuca. Many will not appreciate what a big moment this is for the Italian Canadian community.” And Liberal MP Francesco Sorbara sent out his congratulations in Italian: “Auguri!” he tweeted.
In some ways, Del Duca’s victory is a victory for Sorbara as well. Now 73, Sorbara once represented the riding of Vaughan in the legislature. After he left politics in 2012, Del Duca then won the same seat. Del Duca was at that 1992 convention in Hamilton where Sorbara placed third. He helped manage Sorbara’s successful 1999 campaign for party president. And Sorbara was in Del Duca’s box this past weekend in Mississauga to watch his protegé finish the mission he himself had started.
“Greg is a dear friend and a mentor of mine,” said Del Duca, who’s 46. “I know he experienced some of those challenges back then. But I didn’t experience any of those. I think times have changed.”
Sorbara agrees. “In the end, the emerging reality is that Canadians of Italian heritage are now fully part of the mainstream of Ontario politics,” he emailed. “My candidacy in 1992 helped move the yardsticks somewhat. Steven's very strong campaign and his decisive victory got the community over the goal line.”
And it only took 163 years.