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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Vito (Pete) Cirrullo was born in 1861 in Grotto, Minorde, Italy and came to Canada in 1880.   He worked in the mines in the Crowsnest and Hillcrest areas as well as Trail, BC.  In 1921, he moved to Wayne, Alberta to work in the mines and, in 1929, the family moved to Lehigh.  Because there was no accommodation for families, they lived in the Maple Leaf mine bunkhouses on the company’s property.  Pete built a home for the family and Rosa became the first woman in the Lehigh mining camp, as well as the first family.  On his death in 1950, Pete had lived in Canada for more than 70 years making him one of the earliest, if not the earliest, Italian pioneers in the coal mines.Beginning in the 1890s, Italian men arrived to work in railway camps and mines. There are three distinct periods of immigration: from the 1880s to World War I, from World War I to the outbreak of World War II in 1939 and, finally, post-World War II. In the earliest period, the numbers were limited but they became even more limited as a result of the restrictive immigration practices after the First World War when only family reunification and farm labourers were allowed to come to Canada. The boom time was post-World War II when the Canadian economy required tradesmen of all types and the economic depression in Italy forces many Italian men, both labourers and professionals, to leave their country.

Typically, they were recruited by labour agents and even, according to oral history evidence, mining companies. By the early part of the 20th century recruitment at agricultural fairs became common and family members also sponsored siblings and cousins. They came from all parts of Italy from north to south—Udine, Tuscany, Molise, the Veneto, Friuli, Abruzzi, Calabria, Sicily, etc. While the post-World War II wave of immigration saw enormous numbers of immigrants coming from southern Italy, in the early part of the 20th century a majority of mine workers came from northern Italy.

Four Peressini brothers—Augusto, Diodoro (Doro), Romano and Giacomo—left Valvasone, province of Udine, in 1905 with their Father Andrea to work in Lille.The entry points were Ellis Island in the US and Pier 21 in Halifax. The workers were enormously mobile moving back and forth between the United States and Canada and, in Canada, from East to West. They joined the immigrant workers that made up 90 percent of the work force in the mines of southern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia. According to a 1919 study, the Italians made up 15 percent of the work force in the mines of the Crowsnest Pass.

They came to work and make money and then to return to Italy. But many soon realized that they could have a better life in Canada than in Italy and they returned to marry or had their families arrange marriages. The mines and railways were the principal employers but they also moved on to practice their trades (carpenters, masons) or set up as small shopkeepers. They were very entrepreneurial and families helped each other to establish themselves in the new country.

While in other coal mining regions, the miners worked around the mine site in various capacities, in the Drumheller Valley, a group of Italian miners owned their own mines. A group headed by Luigia Stocco purchased the Sunshine Mine in Wayne. When this mine ceased to be productive, they purchased the Brilliant Mine and continued to employ mainly Italian workers.

With the closing of the mines, many left these communities to settle in larger cities such as Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta and Vancouver in British Columbia. Their memories, however, remain in the graveyards of communities from the Drumheller Valley in Alberta to the Elk Valley in British Columbia.

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