Grace Bagnato Spoke the Languages of New Immigrants

Torontoist

culture

Grace Bagnato Spoke the Languages of New Immigrants

In 1921, she became the first Italian Canadian woman court interpreter in Ontario, helping the many newcomers populating Toronto's growing neighbourhoods.

Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.

The Ward as seen from the top of the Eaton factory in 1910. Osgoode Hall, where Grace Bagnato later worked, is seen in the top right. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 596.

The Ward as seen from the top of the Eaton factory in 1910. Osgoode Hall, where Grace Bagnato later worked, is seen in the top right. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 596.

Police court interpreter, stork derby participant, and multilingual immigrant. Grace Bagnato was all these things as well as a friend to many who learned approximately seven languages so she could speak to her neighbours and family.

Grace Bagnato was born in Pennsylvania in 1891 and moved with her parents to Toronto when she was a young child in 1905. Her parents were Italian immigrants, but didn’t want their children to speak Italian growing up.

Bagnato grew up in The Ward neighbourhood in Toronto, which was home to many newcomers from around the world.

At the young age of 14, she married Joseph Bagnato, a local community leader. He spoke Italian, so she learned the language to communicate with him and her Italian neighbours.

The Italian Picnic in Toronto, August 1 1932. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 27673.

The Italian Picnic in Toronto, August 1 1932. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 27673.

But there were plenty of neighbours in The Ward who weren’t Italian and also weren’t fluent English speakers. So Bagnato learned their languages too, including German, Yiddish, and Polish. In a short video from 2010, one of her children remembers how people from all over the neighbourhood would come to visit Bagnato for translation help. Dealing with the authorities in Toronto could be a stressful experience for immigrants who weren’t confident in their English, so a friendly neighbourhood translator could make all the difference.

Bagnato also had at least 13 children (the plaque erected in her honour says they had 13 children, although her obituary in the Globe says 23. At least one of her children was stillborn.) and was briefly in the lead in Toronto’s Stork Derby. The derby was established after lawyer Charles Vance Millar died in 1926 and in his will he left a large sum to the Toronto woman who had the most children in the 10 years following his death. Four women with nine registered children during the 10 years eventually received cheques for $125,000.

Children play in The Ward c. 1911. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 8029.

Children play in The Ward c. 1911. Photo from the City of Toronto Archives Fonds 1244, Item 8029.

Besides keeping busy at home and in her neighbourhood, Bagnato was also a court interpreter, mainly for Italian speakers. In 1921, she became the first Italian-Canadian women to do this work in Ontario.

Based on coverage in the Globe in 1920 and 1921, around the time Bagnato became an official police court interpreter, she and other interpreters were often involved in the messy local and court politics. A few stories over the early years of the 1920s details accusations of bribes given to the interpreters or suggestion that they encouraged defendants to use certain lawyers. The interpreters were often requires to translate for both the Crown and defence, and were paid by the lawyers, although they argued it was sometimes difficult to collect the money they were owed.

Bagnato and another interpreter, Alex Markowitz, were the targets of bribery charges in 1921 and both had to testify as witnesses, while others spoke to their good characters. Markowitz claimed on the witness stand that, as the Globe reported, enemies from his “unregenerate days” were trying to smear his name. They were eventually exonerated, although the Star reported on their ongoing, unsuccessful, attempts to collect the money they believe they were owed for lost work and for unpaid fees. Bagnato finally returned to work on February 7, 1922, according to the Star. She and Markowitz had been suspended in March 1921.

Grace Bagnato died on October 8, 1950. In 2003, the City agreed to erect a plaque in her memory and in 2013 decided to name a small street between Lawrence Street West and Dane Avenue, “Via Bagnato,” in her honour.

Grace Bagnato plaque at Grace Street and Mansfield Avenue. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.

Grace Bagnato plaque at Grace Street and Mansfield Avenue. Photo by Alan L. Brown of torontoplaques.com.

June is Italian Heritage Month in Canada.

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