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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Germano, Luigi (Louis), Nanni and Arturo (Arthur) Pavan—the Pavan brothers provide a typical immigration story.The settlement of the Canadian West was part of a national strategy that saw the encouragement of massive immigration as a tool for nation building. To create a nation from sea-to-sea, a transcontinental railway was required and a strong and diverse economy. The railways thus became the visible symbol of a united Canada and Confederation, in 1867, was the spur to the development of the West.

To open up the West to settlement and railway building, treaties needed to be concluded with Aboriginal People. Once this was begun, Government of Canada surveyors divided the land into townships of thirty-six square miles (93.4 square kilometres). Townships consisted of 36 sections of one-square mile each. In 1872, the Dominion Lands Act allowed males over the age of 21 or the heads of families to apply for a homestead of 160 acres (64 hectares) for a registration fee of $10.

It was not just homesteaders who came from various parts of eastern and western Europe, China and, eventually, the Ukraine, small shopkeepers, tradesmen—anyone who wanted to begin life anew in a land of opportunity—made their way West. Railway right-of-ways determined the positioning of towns and the proximity of coal reserves to these right-of-ways ensured that a community prospered. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) reached Calgary, Alberta in 1883 and that served as a spur not only to settlement but also industrial activity.

For individuals who came to the coal mining communities as manual labourers, it was important to become a part of the mainstream.Agricultural activity proved a challenge to many—drylands agriculture was alien to most European immigrants. As well, three years of residence on a homestead before receiving title was a long period to be without financial resources. Therefore, work in the mines was attractive because it brought a decent wage, though the work was dangerous and the hours long. While, initially, Lethbridge's Sir Alexander Galt recruited cheap labour from Pennsylvannia and the eastern US, ultimately, recruitment had to go directly to Europe.

The miners were English, Scottish and Welsh, Italian, Polish, Czech, Slovaks, Russians, Byelorussians, Romanians, Belgians and French. Individuals of British ancestry tended to operate the businesses in many communities and also formed the middle and upper-middle classes because, based on the prevailing attitudes of the time, they were more industrious. Northern Europeans were preferred immigrant but southern and Eastern Europeans, the Chinese and other visible minorities were considered suitable for manual labour. The Census of Canada, 1931 reveals that in Alberta's coal mines 87 percent of owners, operators, manager and foremen: 87 percent were of British origin, 12.5 percent of Western European an European origin and .5 percent were of Eastern or Central European origin. Of the coal miners themselves, 41 percent were of British origin, 19 percent were Western European and 40 percent were Eastern or Central European.

J. E. Russell quotes Pete Ludwig, a retired Drumheller Valley coal miner:

The majority of miners that mined the coal came from Europe. They were all nationalities. You could practically name any nationality in Europe and you could find one of them at one of these mining camps. These fellas came here to work in this promised new land...and sometimes they had to work 5 or 6 years before they could scrape up enough money to send for their family. When they did bring their family, they generally just built shacks in these coal mining towns and a great deal of the houses are made out of just any scrap board you found; coal doors, split ties, they would cut willows and nail them on. They would get straw and clay and make a mud and then they would plaster it inside and outside and whitewash it. A good two-thirds of the buildings in the Valley at one time were made out of this mud. Very few of them are left now.1

Antonio Cattoi was born in 1876 in Massone, Trento, northern Italy and emigrated to Canada in 1903. He landed in New York and traveled to Lethbridge where he worked on the construction of the high Level Bridge and in the No. 3 Mine. He traveled back to Italy several times and in 1908 married Catterina Dorigatti. He returned to Canada and worked in the mines of Commerce, Diamond City and Coalhurst. Like other Italians in the region, he purchased a farm. He had the reputation for being the local Hercules and is said to have lifted de-railed coal cars and put them back on the tracks. He would also be seen carrying a 100-pound sack of flour from the Coalhurst General Store to his farm.Immigration remained strong until the beginning of the First World War. After that, immigration was restricted from certain countries and agricultural workers were preferred as was family reunification. The end of World War II spurred a new wave of immigration as the devastated economies of Europe struggled to stabilize. But, by 1950, the mines had ceased to be a significant employer and emigrants came from all over the world to take on a range of economic activities requiring both skilled and unskilled labour.

John Camarta: Oral History Excerpts

John talks about his work in the coal mines and the impact of oil and gas discoveries on the mines and his job.

Click here to listen!

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