by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
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Ranching and agriculture were not occupations of choice for Italians. While many of the immigrants came from rural areas, and it would have been logical for them to seek agricultural work, this largely did not happen. This is in marked contrast to the Ukrainian block settlement in central Alberta, which was agricultural in nature.
There were likely several reasons for this. First and foremost, the growing conditions and the challenges of homesteading and ranching in Alberta were overwhelming for Italian farmers who were used to small holdings and mixed farming. The Naples agricultural colony, established in 1904, failed. Homesteading and dryland agriculture were challenging and the financial rewards were risky, particularly so for men who came initially to make money and return to the homeland. The wages to be earned in mines and working for the railways, as well as in construction and retail in urban centres, were more certain. The oral and family histories do mention, however, that
immigrants raised vegetables as well as chickens, pigs and goats even in urban areas. There are also some examples of Italians being market gardeners.
With respect to ranching, there is only one example, that of
Pocaterra. He was born in 1882, in Vicenza in the Veneto, the son of an aristocratic family. As with the younger sons of British aristocratic families, he was fascinated by the wild west. In 1903, he emigrated to Winnipeg, and, eventually, ended up working as a cowboy on the Bar D Ranch near High River. He established his own ranch, the Buffalo Head Ranch on the Highwood River in 1905. He fell in love with the region and the Stoney Peoples, exploring and mapping much of the Kanaskis area. In 1924, he turned the Buffalo Head into a successful dude ranch. When his father died in 1933, he sold the ranch and returned to Italy to settle family affairs, subsequently returning to Calgary to live.
On August 28th, 1914, the Canadian Northern Station saw a party of 20 families from northern Italy leave on the Athabasca train to set up an agricultural colony near Lac La
Biche. This was
Alberta's second Italian colony and was called Venice because of the place of origin of many of the settlers. A contemporary newspaper article notes that the Venice colony was sponsored by the Società Vittorio Emanuele Terzo of Edmonton and Industrial Commissioner Hall's Department.
The Edmonton Journal clipping from the same year features a photograph, complete with a hunting dog and children in fancy dress under the title "Leaving for a Different 'Front'." The caption refers to the "war front" and states: "There has been some doubt since the European war began, whether Italy would join Germany and Austria, her allies according to the
'Triple Alliance' or turn against them and fight side by side with Britain. There is, however, no doubt as to where the sons of sunny Italy shown in this picture stand."
This adventure is captured in the diary
DeAngelis, the consular agent, who was a civil engineer and instrumental in setting up the colony. His diary is a fascinating document, his writing that of an aesthete who loves nature but is not too knowledgeable about agriculture. The agriculturalist in their midst was
Olivo John (O.J.) Biollo from Campalongo Maggiore. He had emigrated to Canada in 1902 to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway ending up in Winnipeg where he prospered and bought a hotel. Doctors recommended that he move further west because of bad lungs and, in 1911, he came to Edmonton and, eventually hooked up with the Venice colonists.