He was born Giuseppe Pivato in Tezze sul Brenta, a town about 40 km north of Venice, Italy. His mother, Meri Sabucco, was from Udine in the Friuli region east of Venice. This Italian origin was to have a profound influence on his whole life and career as a writer, researcher and academic. The family emigrated to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in 1952 where the Catholic nuns changed his name to Joseph. He attended St. Michael's College School, an academic high school for boys, where he studied languages and literature. He enrolled at York University where he studied with modernist scholar, D.E.S. Maxwell, feminist and medievalist, Beryl Rowland, feminist scholar, Johanna H. Stuckey, Canadian writer, Irving Layton, met French poet Hedi Bouraoui and poet-critic, Eli Mandel. With D.E.S. Maxwell he enrolled in the first course in African Literature (1969). In the summers he worked with Italian bricklayers to help pay for his university fees. In 1968 he founded and edited the first literary magazine at York, Voodoo Poetry at Vanier College. In 1970 he earned a B.A. (Combined Honours, English and French) from York and moved to Edmonton to study Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. His 1971 M.A. thesis was on Dante and Baudelaire. Writer and academic E.D. Blodgett was his advisor for his Ph.D. thesis on hermetic poetry. He also met Canadian writers Henry Kreisel and Sheila Watson and began to work on Canadian authors publishing his first critical essay in Canadian Literature (1973, editor George Woodcock) while he was still a graduate student. At the end of his doctoral program (1977) he began to work at Athabasca University, a distance education institution modeled after the British Open University. At Athabasca he helped to develop the first courses in English literature, Canadian Literature, Comparative Literature and theory. He was promoted to Full Professor in 1986. He was founding president of the Association of Italian-Canadian Writers(1986) which advances the work of these ethnic minority authors through critical publications, biennial conferences, book launches and literary readings across Canada and in Italy. At Athabasca Pivato was Chair of the Centre for Language and Literature on three separate occasions and developed the first courses in creative writing. In 2010 he was founding professor of the new M.A. in Literary Studies which is part of the MA-IS program. He is married to Alberta psychologist, writer, academic and disabilities advocate Dr. Emma Pivato. Their children include Dr. Marcus J. Pivato, Prof. of Economics, University of Cergy-Pontoise (Paris, France), and Juliana Pivato, Artist and Academic in Toronto. Emma Pivato's novels include Blind Sight Solution (Chicago: Cozy Cat Press, 2013) The Crooked Knife (2014) Roscoe's Revenge (2014) Jessie Knows (2015) Murder on Highway 2 (2016) and Deadly Care (2016). Since July, 2015, he has been Professor Emeritus at Athabasca University.
Joseph Pivato promotes Italian-Canadian writing by using the theories of Comparative Literature. As a literature which exists in three languages: English, French and Italian, it lends itself to discussions on translation, influences, ethnic identity, migration and appropriation. His discovery began in 1978 when his poems were included in Roman Candles, the first anthology of Italian-Canadian poets edited by Pier Giorgio DiCicco. This inspired him to present the first paper on Italian-Canadian writers at a national conference at Dalhousie University, Halifax in May, 1981. This paper was rejected by several journals and was eventually published as “The Arrival of Italian-Canadian Writing,” in Canadian Ethnic Studies 14,1 (1982).
In 1984 Pivato was Research Fellow in the Ethnic and Immigration Studies Program at the University of Toronto. This fellowship was at the invitation of Prof. Robert F. Harney, Academic Director (1976–89) of the Multicultual History Society of Ontario at U.of T. In Toronto he edited his first book, Contrasts: Comparative Essays on Italian-Canadian Writing (1985) which became a seminal volume for the promotion of ethnic minority literature in Canada. He conceived and co-edited the “Italian-Canadian Connections” issue of Canadian Literature 106 (1985). Pivato spent the year 1987-88 at York University in the Mariano Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies where he developed and taught the first course on Italian-Canadian writers. The Research Institute for Comparative Literature in Edmonton invited him to edit Literatures of Lesser Diffusion (1990), the first collection of studies of writing by 20 different ethnic groups in Canada. In 1991 he was Canadian Visiting Fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. This sojourn resulted in the publication of Echo: Essays on Other Literatures (1994), a collection of original critical studies on Comparative Literature and minority writing, translation, oral influences on writing, ethnic women writers, and other topics. The critical foreword is by feminist scholar, Sneja Gunew (Deakin & U.B.C.). He returned to Canadian Ethnic Studies in 1996 by editing a special issue on “Literary Theory and Ethnic Minority Writing.” The major volume Pivato edited was The Anthology of Italian-Canadian Writing (1998) which included 53 authors working in English, French or Italian and which has been used as a text in many college and university courses. Among the authors included are F.G. Paci, Linda Hutcheon, Nino Ricci, Pasquale Verdicchio, Mary di Michele, Fulvio Caccia and Marco Micone. Pivato's poetry has appeared in Poetry Canada Review, Seven Persons Repository, Manna, Canadian Ethnic Studies," and his short fiction in Threshold (1999) and Passages (2002).
Pivato was in the forefront of research and advocacy for a multicultural view of Canadian literature. Writer and academic George Elliott Clarke points to his work as an example that other ethnic minority writers should follow in establishing a distinct identity for their publications. Pivato has been a visiting speaker and researcher at the University of Udine several times and has contributed to conferences and publication at their Centro di Cultura Canadese founded by Prof. Anna Pia De Luca. He focused some of his research on Canadian writers with backgrounds in Friuli. In 2004 he was visiting fellow at the University of Wollongong, Australia, where he collaborated with Prof. Gaetano Rando. Over the years Pivato has been an invited speaker at the University of Calgary, the University of Toronto, The University of Montreal, Laurentian University, the California State University, Long Beach, the University of Warwick, U.K. the University of Venice, the University of Melbourne and other institutions.
From 2000 to 2011 he was general editor of the Essential Writers Series with Antonio D’Alfonso at Guernica Editions (Toronto and Montreal). He is now sole editor of this Writers Series. By 2017 the series had reached an impressive 46 volumes, each a monograph on a Canadian author including: Sheila Watson, Sharon Pollock, Caterina Edwards, Aritha Van Herk, Gail Scott, Robert Kroetsch, David Adams Richards, Nicole Brossard, Margaret Atwood, Anne Hébert, Gary Geddes, Joy Kogawa, Mary di Michele, Dany Laferriere, and Jack Hodgins. Each is edited by a prominent academic such as Lianne Moyes, Anne Nothof, Louise H. Forsyth, Monique Tschofen, Christl Verduyn, Nicole Markotic, Jolene Armstrong and Sheena L. Wilson. In 2008 he first identified the Sherbrooke School of Comparative Canadian Literature as instrumental in the development and study of Canadian writing in English, French and translations, and later published this new proposal in 2011. He edited the critical anthology, Africadian Atlantic: Essays on George Elliott Clarke (2012), the first book devoted to this important African-Canadian author. He edited, Sheila Watson: Essays on Her Works (2015), the first book to examine all of Watson's work as a writer, editor and mentor.
At the Athabasca University site for faculty research Pivato has posted 12 of his most recent published essays on ethnic minority writing in Canada. Joseph Pivato created and maintains the Canadian Writers site at Athabasca University, the extensive research site on the authors of Canada.