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     Edmonton:  Early Years

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Introduction

Early Years

 World War I and
Interwar Period

World War II
and After

  Cultural Life

Pioneers

 Population Statistics

 
Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

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Oliva John Biollo and his bride Annie pictured on their wedding day September 10th, 1907 in Winnipeg.  Photo courtesy of Mrs. Mary Biollo Doyle He sponsored his two brothers and was successful in buying the hotel but, because he did not have Canadian citizenship, he lost the hotel to his Canadians partner.  Doctors recommended that he move further west because of bad lungs and, in 1911, he came to Edmonton.  He initially opened a store (96 Street and 99 Avenue) as well as operating The Family Theatre.  He also operated The Venice Club, which later became The Italian Society, which, according to Mrs. Doyle, had a membership of about 200.  He was the second President.  Whether this is the Società Vittorio Emanuele Terzo or a different society, it would appear that there was an established Italian community in Edmonton by just prior to World War I.  The fraternal societies, of which the Vittorio Emanuele was one, were self-help societies established by workers and existed in many mining communities. 

Len Bonifacio throws additional light on the colony in an article he wrote for Il Congresso (February, 1991) and, because, this is his own family's immigration history it's information that has been handed down from generation to generation.  He notes that the settlers arrived in New York in 1911 and came from northern Italy.  He mentions that they worked on the railroad in Boston before moving on to Kansas where they worked in the coal mines.  Then, via the community grapevine, they heard of work on the railways in Canada and headed for Winnipeg.  Construction on the High Level Bridge, a railway and vehicle bridge, in Edmonton, 1914.  Photo courtesy of City of Edmonton Archives.  They connected with other Italian immigrants and worked for the Grand Trunk Railway.  At different times, they made their way to Edmonton and connected as a group.  He also mentions a fascinating detail that they lived together in a large rooming house and worked primarily on construction of the High Level Bridge.  The young men sent for their wives in 1913 and they arrived a few months later.  He notes, "When war broke out in 1914, with Italy fighting with the Allies, the Italian newcomers were given a choice by the government; serve in the Canadian armed forces or set out and begin farming.  A few joined the army, but the majority decided to work the land." 

This account is fascinating not only with respect to the establishment of the Venice colony, but also because its evidence of the close contact among immigrants, whether in Canada or the US, as they looked for work and opportunities to improve their lot.  The relationship is not just based on blood ties but also on the fact that they had lived in their community in Italy and had been rooted in a region for generations and generations.  Thus, the geographical linkage that made them paesani, that is, townsmen, was incredibly important and, as Stan Carbone has pointed out, labourers were recruited through agricultural fairs in their home towns and emigrated en masse.  While in Winnipeg, the early Italian community was from the town of Amato in Italy, this was not the case in Edmonton.  Immigrants came from both north and south.

Luigi Biamonte and Florenzo Comin in front of their barbershop in what would become Edmonton's Little Italy.  Photo courtesy of the Biamonte family and the Italians Settle in Edmonton Oral History Project and the book of the same name.Thus, through the words of various seniors, now mostly deceased, we get an image of Italian immigrants getting a foothold in Edmonton as a result of the coal mining both within the city and in the Coal Branch as well as work on the railways and forestry camps.  n the city, Domenico Chiarello, a former miner, pictured in front of the Venice Confectionery, which he established in Edmonton, with his daughter Francesca in 1949.  Photo courtesy of the family and the Italians Settle in Edmonton Oral History Project and the booklet of the same name.they turned their hand to shopkeeping, market gardening, barbering and any other work that presented itself to them.  The frequent assertion that the Italian immigrants were unskilled labourers from the southern Italian countryside (that is, contadini) is not borne out by the evidence (albeit a small sample).  There are many trades represented in the individuals that were interviewed in the Dante Alighieri and Italians Settle in Edmonton oral history projects

Mrs. Myra Butti (nee Cantera) talks of how she met her husband Enrico when she was 12 years old when she went to Nordegg to visit a married sister and help her after the birth of a child.  The Buttis were friends of her brother-in-law and family.  Rossdale Flats, Edmonton. Flood of 1915. Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-901Edmonton had been her home since November 1914; and she remembers the big flood in the Rossdale Flats when houses floated down the Saskatchewan River.  She reminisces about her grandparents in Edmonton who had land and her Grandfather raised pigs and made his own wine.  He had first emigrated to Wilmingdon, Delaware in the U.S.  Her Father, Lorenzo Cantera, and his four or five brothers went into prospecting, painting, bricklaying and construction.  Their descendants are still doing the same things.  Her Father and his brothers left the U.S. and came to Edmonton in 1912.  She notes that her Father, in the old country, was an artist who painted cathedrals but here he worked at the post office.  Her Mother died in 1917 and her Father remarried and returned to the U.S. leaving his children in Edmonton.  Her brother Raymond [Renaldo] also worked in the post office until his retirement when the Postmaster General came from Ottawa to give him a medal.  He was also a violinist who played in the local symphony orchestra.

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