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News Articles - Italians a big part of Calgary Past

Italians a big part of Calgary Past
Calgary Herald, February 19th, 2003
By Pearl Tsang

(Copyright Calgary Herald 2003)

CALGARY - Lina Castle's market and cappuccino bar is more than a place to buy groceries or grab a cup of coffee.

It's a symbol of the Italian community's presence in Calgary, a little bit of Italy on the Canadian Prairie.

"We have a cappuccino bar, a bakery and homemade Italian food," Castle said of her shop on Centre Street N.E. "You walk in and you can smell it. It's very unique."

But the market is also something else -- a living reminder of the contribution the Italian-Canadian community has made in building the city and the province.

That story, often overlooked, is now being told online, part of a project undertaken by the province's Italian community with help from Heritage Community Foundation, a non-profit organization with ties to a number of government and non-government agencies.

Not surprisingly, the website discusses the role food played in the social interaction of the early Italian immigrants, as well as its influence on Canadian culture, particularly over the last 50 years.

Indeed, one section of the website proudly notes that many of Canada's inner cities have areas known as "little Italys," districts that have become a draw for visitors and community members alike.

"The buildings and streetscapes may resemble those of any older city in Canada, but the stores and the restaurants are a treasure trove of Italian products."

But the Web site also explores some less familiar territory, including the role Italian immigrants played in building the railroad and opening Alberta's coal mines.

"There has been an Italian presence in our province since the 1890's and it isn't acknowledged in our history," said Adriana Albi Davies, executive director of the Heritage Community Foundation.

Albi Davies, who has for the last 20 years researched the history of Italian immigration to Alberta, says the coming of the railway brought other industries to the province, many of them led by Italian pioneers who came with trades and operated stores and lodges.

Life in the early days was not easy. Some men who met their wives here discouraged their children from learning Italian so that they would not be viewed as foreigners.

The same cannot be said today. Many Italian-Canadians are eager to learn the language of their roots.

"They can keep their identity, recognize their roots and learn a little bit about the culture," said Serafino Scarpino, principal of the Heritage Language School at the Calgary Italian Centre.

Scarpino also sees many non-Italians who wish to learn the language because of Italy's art and music history which goes back well over 3,000 years.

The first big wave of Italian immigrants came just after Second World War. Economic unrest and unemployment caused Italians to look for work abroad.

"They worked on railways, in forestry camps, the mines and in construction," said Albi Davies. "First Italians were also heavily involved in the pilot projects of tar sands and the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton." Albi Davies said there is very little recognition of these contributions by Italian immigrants.

Albi Davies, who is an Italian immigrant, said that about 15 per cent of the coal miners in Alberta were of Italian descent, and that these miners helped develop loggias, groups that provided money to those who needed financial assistance as well as moral support. Most early immigrants were men who had no family here to support them.

Many of them got together and reproduced customs and traditions from home. These social gatherings were used to cushion the loneliness of being in an alien place.

Castle also understands the hardships associated with arriving in a new country, and the benefits of community. Her first job was at an Italian groceria where her boss made her feel at home.

"I knew I had to move on. I wasn't learning any English so I went to work at the deli in Safeway -- it was hard, but I tried my best."

The profile of the Italian-Canadian community in Alberta is the first one of its kind to be launched in association with the Heritage Community Foundation, but there may be others down the road, Albi Davies said. To learn more about Alberta's Italian Heritage, you can visit: www.albertasource.ca/abitalian/.

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