There's a word in Italian for the kind of open and absolute polarization that is going on right now in the Italo-Canadian community: lottizzazione. It means, loosely translated, this is now all about politics. That's the ugly reality of a matter that looks at first glance like a garden-variety business spat. It started with an application made by Rogers Cable to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) on behalf of RAI International, the global arm of Italy's state-owned broadcaster, to have the Italian station added as pay service for Rogers digital subscribers.
The bid, if successful, would sever a long-standing tie between RAI and Telelatino, a Canadian-based network that has been broadcasting the former's programming since 1984.
In recent weeks, the controversy has grown into a battle of international proportions with the Italian-Canadian media ablaze with fiery headlines. But the real significance of this nasty scenario has to do with the ties between the Italian government and local Italo-Canadians. Critics here see the push for RAI as an attempt to bring Italian political squabbles into Canada - no small matter, given that Italians abroad recently got the right to be represented with 12 seats in the lower house and six senators in the Italian parliament.
Flash back to a speech given last November at a conference for Italians living abroad held at the Columbus Centre in North York. Massimo Magliaro, RAI International's chair, promised direct access to RAI International for Canadian television viewers and announced that its broadcast agreement with Telelatino would be terminated effective August 31, 2003.
He went on to say that Telelatino would no longer be allowed to "massacre' RAI programming by adding Canadian advertisements or editing shows to fit North American broadcast schedules.
In response to attacks against it printed in local Italian daily Corriere Canadese and other community media, Telelatino launched an on-air campaign to keep RAI. "We felt we had to do something" says John Montesano, vice-president of programming at Telelatino, which is 51 per cent owned by Corus Entertainment and 49 per cent by Italian Canadian Joe Vitale, owner of Italpasta and from the family that owns Mastro Foods.
Meanwhile in Italy, the weekly magazine L'espresso reported an almost surreal meeting between Telelatino president Aldo Di Felice and RAI International chair Magliaro that took place last month in Rome.
There, according to Di Felice, Magliaro gave a "friendly warning" that if Telelatino continued with its ad campaign, "It would have to deal with not just RAI International, but also RAI in Italy, the Italian government and the Vatican."
Magliaro later responded that Di Felice's account "was incorrect, due to his flawed understanding of the Italian language." Magliaro also appeared on CHIN radio here in Toronto to say that the story in L'espresso was the product of a massive misinformation campaign on the part of Telelatino and its allies.
More than any other group, it has been the Committees of Italians Abroad (better known as Comites) that have been leading the charge to introduce RAI International into Canada, circulating petitions, organizing meetings across the country and spreading the gospel of 24-hour Italian television straight from Rome. Five letters of support have poured in for RAI from the five Canadian regional Comites.
Franco Gaspari, president of Comites-Toronto, makes no bones about the need for RAI to be closely tied to Italians in Canada who can now vote in elections back home. "It is an essential part of globalization," he says. "Italians, if they have the right to vote, can't be given (full coverage of the political debate) by a local commercial entity. It is the right of the Italian community (to have RAI International)."
But the Comites aren't just simple community group. They're ultimately responsible to the Italian Ministry of External Affairs, from which they receive their operating budgets. Some members of Comites-Toronto are also the Canadian representatives of Italian political parties, including PM Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
At CHIN Radio, president Lenny Lombardi says his company is staying out of the conflict. But his reporter Cristiano De Florentii, blurs the lines. De Florentii has covered this story but also works for RAI International and acts as president of Comites-Toronto's communication commission.
Into this tangled debate between the Canadian public and Italian politics steps Jason Sordi, president of the National Congress of Italian Canadians' Toronto section. He says that the NCIC-Toronto and other groups like it "should have been brought into the discussion about RAI International at the ground level."
As the end of August approaches, it looks as though RAI will remove much of its programming from Telelatino just as the RAI licence application comes before the CRTC. De Florentiis says that the situation between RAI and Telelatino is "evolving by the minute." It remains to be seen if the CRTC will allow a foreign broadcaster to undermine a Canadian-owned outlet. Unfortunately, the only interested party whose voice has not been heard is the community itself.