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Discrimination

 

Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

  
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These "rankings" of immigrants was entrenched in the work in mines and railroads where owners and managers were British and workers were not. Alberta's Crow's Nest Pass and Coal Branch mining communities attracted workers from across Europe. A royal commission study of the coal industry in 1919 noted the following makeup of the labour force:

  • 90 percent of the workers in the Pass were immigrants
      
  • 34 percent were British
     
  • 23 percent were Slovak
     
  • 14.5 percent were Italian
     
  • 7 percent were French and Belgian
     
  • 2 percent were Russian
     
  • 8.5 percent were "other European"
     
  • 1 percent were American 5

But sheer desperation enabled Italian immigrants to put up with racial slurs and to succeed. In the process, they helped themselves through the creation of fraternal societies or loggias and also became supporters of unions. They also joined with other workers on strikes when necessary to make their case. This determination won them friends and respect in many communities as is evident in a range of community history books produced in the 1970s and 1980s in Alberta. The men and their families simply accepted discrimination as another hardship they had to face in Canada-as pervasive as the cold weather and lack of all of the amenities of home. 

The character trait that served them well is captured in the Italian word arrangiarsi, that is, making do. The concept was developed by Roberto Perin and Franc Sturino in their book Arrangiarsi: The Italian Immigrant Experience in Canada to explain the determination to succeed of Italian immigrants. The authors speak of the adaptability of immigrants in responding to frequently adverse conditions and see this as evidence of strength of character and moral fibre. This is something they brought from the homeland and further developed in Canada. In spite of hard work and discrimination, Italian immigrants prospered in Alberta and Canada, and when mines closed, they moved to urban centres and took on a range of jobs to establish themselves and their families. 

Italians coming in all three waves of immigration from the late 19th/early 20th centuries to the interwar years and post-World War II experienced discrimination. World War II heightened the suspicion of Italians as they are designated "enemy aliens" because of their connection with the regime of Benito Mussolini. Italian societies across the country became suspect and, rightly, the few that were Fascist in nature. It was not just the avowed Fascists, it was all Italians, recent immigrants as well as those who had been in Canada since the end of the 19th century who came under suspicion. The effect of this was to accelerate the pace of assimilation. Being Italian was something to be ashamed of rather than proud. All of the societies associated with the maintenance of Italian culture and traditions were largely abandoned. In the 1950s, racial slurs became more specific to Italians, for example, the words "WOPs," "dagos," etc. An additional burden was that of being considered Mafiosi as a result of the rise to power of Al Capone in Chicago and other crime bosses. This was particularly offensive for hard working people who, whether practicing Catholics or not, had strong ethical and moral values.

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