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Edmonton's Little Italy


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The notion of an immigrant community having one identity is problematical. The members of that community are as diverse in their homeland, as Canadians are in Canada. However, the neutral labels of "immigrants," "strangers," and "other" suggest this kind of simple view, as do the "negative" labels of "WOP," "dago," "DPs," etc." As well, because many immigrants took on labouring jobs, they de facto became identified with the working class whether or not this fit their socio-economic profile or circumstances.  While many immigrants were braciante [labourers], even from the earliest period of immigration there were craftsman, who had significant standing in their communities in Italy, as well as small tradespeople.

An aspect of the maturation and entrenchment of Italian immigrants in Alberta locally, provincially and nationally was immigrants' upward mobility-their ability to become professionals and to become a part of the mainstream. Families encouraged further education and entry into the professions. A strong work ethic and emphasis on family and family values characterized the Italian community. The working class roots had to be left behind and, in many cases, those other aspects of identity, language, culture and, in some cases, religion. Thus, while the early Italian societies were fraternal in nature, the later ones were social, recreational, business and religious. These societies became a means of preserving aspects of the Italian culture that the immigrants valued and which helped to define them in a strange land. They also became a means of entrenching the community and giving it power and influence.

But it is now 50 years since the beginning of the third wave of immigration from Italy and the need for the societies or clubs is being questioned. Italians are a well-established minority in Alberta and issues of discrimination rarely surface other than in academic papers. The war-time experience of internment and police surveillance happened a long time ago, though the issue of "stereotyping," as in notions of all Italians being Mafiosi, do continue to surface (most recently as a result of the successful television drama The Sopranos). Some community members are extremely sensitive to this and it goes back to Al Capone and the Mafia in the US. This "dark" episode in terms of the Italian presence in North America has provided a lucrative theme for Hollywood and the American entertainment industry.  This stereotype is found offensive by many in the community because it challenges the basic honesty and integrity of the majority of Italian immigrants and is something that they find it difficult to see humour in. They view it as a means of reinforcing negative stereotypes that they have had to contend with.

The World War II experience of internment resulted in a real turning away from the Italian language and roots. When the new immigrants began to arrive from Italy in 1949/50,  in Edmonton, the Italian societies had disappeared. It is as if they had never existed and they were not talked about, like a shameful episode in family history that is buried and forgotten. Thus, the pioneer work of the establishment of organizations through which community life could take place had to be begin again. The Italians who had been assimilated were not particularly interested in participating in the re-invention of the Italian community. Thus, there was a deep divide between the "founding families" and the new immigrants and an actual sense of "caste." There was even some resentment of the newcomers and an entrenched old-timer actually stated that the children of the new immigrants should not go to university. 

This new wave of pioneers looked first to the establishment of the church, then, sports organizations and, finally, social clubs. In Edmonton, the Santa Maria Goretti Parish was built in 1958. Italians had worshipped in the basement of Sacred Heart Parish and also the chapel at the General Hospital (celebrated by a Father Luigi of the Salesian order) but, as their numbers increased, a need was expressed for a church as a community gathering place. Priests who spoke the Italian language had sometimes been available to officiate, for example, Oblates of Mary Immaculate but, now, the community looked to an order that had been established in northern Italy in the 19th century to care for the needs of immigrants to North America. 

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