Country of Origin:
Immigration, Racism/Discrimination, Identity & Heritage, Multiculturalism & Diversity, Adjusting to Life in Canada
My name now is Toni Ellwand. However, when I arrived in Toronto, Ontario, my maiden name was Antonietta Lo Raso.
I was five years old when I took my first airplane in 1963.
I was born in a small town called Ribera, about a two hours’ drive south east of the city of Palermo in Sicily, Italy.
We arrived in December and being from a southern island, I had only ever seen snow once in my young life. That one time, the snow had come down on our village in the form of hail and everyone thought it was a sign that the world might be coming to an end! It had been a very terrifying experience.
However, when we arrived in Toronto, Canada, the air was very cold and there were mountains of white lying on the ground. As we drove from the airport to my uncle’s house on Dufferin Street near Bloor, I remember giant snowflakes, gently falling on us. (My uncle had borrowed a friend’s convertible to pick us up and the hood didn’t work). That soft snow seemed beautiful to me. It was very different from the hard pellets of hail that I had experienced that one time in my home town.
I went to a Catholic school and high school and I graduated with an Honour’s Bachelor of Fine Arts in Performance from York University.
I have been an actress for most of my working life. I have served on the board of ACTRA and am currently serving as a councilor on the Canadian Actor’s Equity board. I have performed at Workman theatre, doing VINCENT, a play about schizophrenia. I did this show on and off from 1996 to 2003.
I went from a single child whose young mother had never worked a day in her life to one whose father worked the night shift at a spaghetti factory and whose mother worked the day shift at a cigar factory.
My parents used to meet at the bus stop to say hello and good bye. I was shipped to the next door neighbour’s while they worked. Aside from her own children, the neighbour had a few of us kids that she babysat. Babysat isn’t really the description. Her house was more like a holding pen where we were left by our harried parents and where the caregiver paid as little attention to us as possible since she was constantly cooking and cleaning for her own crew. Still hungry most mornings, I would watch them eat their breakfast and I was never offered anything. Her surly, pre-teen daughter walked quickly ahead of me to the neighbourhood Catholic school where she left me. After school, I made my own way back to be plunked in front of the TV to watch whatever was on until it was time to go home.
School was challenging in the beginning as I didn’t speak the language and there were no ESL programs at the time. I remember being in my grade one class and babbling in Italian, trying to be understood. The teacher was telling me to be quiet but I didn’t know what she wanted. She then came to my chair and with her brown leather strap, wacked my hands a few times. I was so angry but I didn’t cry. I didn’t want to give her that satisfaction. Another time, because I didn’t know how to excuse myself to go to the washroom, I remember wetting myself a little. It was a difficult time at the beginning. It wasn’t until second grade that I started to understand what was going on and that I needed to figure out how to learn English. Nobody taught me, it was the threat of failure by the grade two teacher that forced me to focus and I made myself learn.
High school was a real eye opener for me and that’s when I really started to enjoy being in Canada. I went to a downtown Catholic high school and I met girls from all over the city. This eclectic exposure helped me grow and appreciate different music and culture. This is where my love of theatre was fostered. I would probably never have become an actress if it hadn’t been for my wonderful high school drama teachers and for the progressive friends I made in high school.