Coun. Bill Marra is prepared to rescind his membership at the Caboto Club in Windsor unless it changes its almost century-old policy of allowing only men to sit on the board.
The practice is again in the spotlight after Premier Kathleen Wynne moved an upcoming town hall from the Italian club to the St. Clair College Centre for the Arts, after the Caboto's policy drew backlash online.
Marra said he contacted Ron Moro, the club's general manager, and board members about the policy and expressed that "change is the right thing to do."
"I think these are the kinds of changes that are important because if anything [the policy] undermines what we are as a community and a society ... it doesn't represent who we are," explained Marra. "If the board decides it's not going to make a change I feel very strongly that I'll have to rescind the membership."
The city councillor has long been a member of the club, including holding an election party and even his wedding reception in one of its banquet halls.
But, he said, the club's policy has been a topic of conversation in his own family this past weekend when it was noted, for example, the annual Christmas party is only for children of members.
"Because my sister is not married to an Italian and because she's not a member, she doesn't benefit from the Caboto Club in that respect whereas I do, and there's something fundamentally wrong with that - because it's based on gender," he said.
Marra was even celebrated as the Italian of the Year at a ceremony at Caboto. This year, that same honour, voted on by members at Italian clubs across the community, is creating a complicated situation for Dino Chiodo.
The longtime union leader and current auto director for Unifor national will be celebrated in March as the 2017 Italian of the Year. He said, at this point, he still plans to accept the award.
"I'm honoured. I'm an Italian individual with a rich culture and history," he said, adding the club supports countless non-profits in the area through donations and fundraisers.
After learning about the club's policy, Chiodo said he, along with James Stewart, president of Local 444 and Matt Marchand, the C.E.O. of the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce, reached out to the general manager of the club and asked him about the possibility of change.
"Right now, we're on the sidelines waiting to see the progressiveness of the process … and I'm hopeful that a result will be had," said Chiodo, adding diversity makes every community and organization stronger.
He added if there is change, it will take some time because it can only happen after an involved process and a two-thirds majority vote from the club.
"Hopefully this will be something people will recognize and move in the right direction," said Chiodo. "Obviously there's some progressive components that they're looking at in their constitution."
Women's Auxiliary open to change
Santina Ferrara has been part of the Italian Women's Club at the Caboto Club for 38 years — more than half her life.
The 71-year-old said five years after the club was built by Italian men living in Windsor-Essex, female members decided to create their own social club to "stay together to help out with the men."
"Some of these ladies were new immigrants, they needed to still have some connection to their homeland," she explained.
Although the women's auxiliary club has been around for 88 years, Ferrara can't remember a time when a woman in their club expressed interest in joining the men's club, adding the groups have worked together in the past.
"I'm not against it if this is going to make the club work out better," she said, addressing the possibility of changing the club's men-only board policy.
Hard to get a seat
But Ferrara pointed out that getting a seat on the board isn't easy — prospective members have to start at the bottom and work their way up, as she did on the auxiliary.
"I would like to see women first be involved in the general assembly," she said. "How can you go to a board of a men's club without any experience in the general assembly?"
Ferrara added she isn't sure if anyone currently on the auxiliary will want to join the men's club.
"They haven't complained about it, but I'm sure some are thinking with all this lately, some are thinking they can be a member of the men's club," she said. "That's fine, but you have to start at the bottom like every other member."
She said she will know more about any possible changes after the club's upcoming executive meeting.