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     Introduction:  Italians Settle in Edmonton

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Read the Book  |   Introduction  |  Chronology  |  Santa Maria Goretti Parish  |  Acknowledgements

It is not too difficult to compile a brief outline of Italian immigration to Canada, and even to Alberta and, specifically, Edmonton. But these statistics have little meaning for the average person, other than evoking the response, "Were there really Italians in Edmonton as early as 1901?"

Immigration figures do not tell about the lives led by the immigrants. They do not tell of their joys and sufferings, of the alien land to which they came, and the adjustments they made to climate, to alien traditions, foods, etc. This is the area to be explored and fleshed out by the community historian. But you may wonder, "Why bother writing about the lives of ordinary people? Isn't history about the great events of human life and the men who were participants in them?" Because so many of our forebears and, we ourselves, are ordinary people, working class and community histories attempt to help us find out about ourselves, about the role that our forefathers played, and that we continue to play, in the shaping of the country in which we live. After all, if it were not for the miners, the railway workers, the factory workers, etc., our land would not be what it is today.

The negative aspect (but also the challenge) of this kind of history is that we are dealing with human lives and that these are too brief. It is virtually too late to get first-hand accounts from Italians who settled in Edmonton prior to World War 1. It may be almost too late to record the experience of those who came in the great wave of immigration just after World War II. Thus, community historians are involved in a race against time - to interview and tape the reminiscences of old-timers, to collect old photographs and documents before children and grandchildren dispose of them as useless reminders of hard times.

But why bother to do this? The principal values are twofold. On a personal level, the individual interviewed should be made to feel that the community as a whole (specifically the Italian community and, more generally, Edmonton, Alberta, and Canada) values his or her contribution to the comforts and freedoms that we daily enjoy. Speaking for the greater community, these bits of personal remembrance stolen from the oblivion of time will give Edmontonians, as a whole, a clearer, fuller picture of the making of their city.

What have we discovered so far? Early in the twentieth century, Italians came to Edmonton on their way to work in the Coal Branch and other mines in British Columbia and Alberta. Some settled in Edmonton working in traditional trades, as carpenters, bricklayers, bakers, barbers, etc. Many came from rural areas where they worked as agricultural workers and only intended to stay long enough so that they could make some money to buy some land back home. Almost inevitably, the beauty of the country and the potential for economic growth and development seized their imaginations and they had their families join them. In the early days, there were few of them. A newspaper article in 1915, talking about the setting up of an agricultural Italian colony in Lac La Biche, mentions that the sponsoring group is La Societa Vittorio Emanuele III to which the 600 Italians in Edmonton belong. Were there really so many, so early? Members of the D'Appolonia family, who were in Edmonton at the time, remember the flood of 1915 which wiped out much of the Rossdale Flats. They remember the Italian artisan, a Mr. Zuchett, who did the mosaic work for the Parliament buildings. Mr. Enrico Butti did much of the electrical work for the University of Alberta power plants. Mr. Luigi Biamonte contributed to the cultural life of the city through his various orchestral ventures. Italian women worked as seamstresses for GWG. Other men, including Mr. Ralph Albi, Mr. Attilio Gatto, Mr. Teodoro Cimino, Mr. Eugenio Falcone, Mr. Vittorio Facchin, worked for the Italian-owned Nu-West Construction Company and then moved on to Imperial Oil as the oil industry became a big employer of Italians. Others set up small grocery stores and laid the foundations for the prosperous community of Italian shopkeepers we have today. In the process, they changed the eating habits of the city. We all remember as schoolchildren when our Canadian friends turned up their noses at our smelly sandwiches. Today, what grocery store doesn't have on sale Italian salami, provolone, etc.?

Thus in finding out about our pasts, we are elucidating that of our city as a whole. We are clarifying for ourselves and our children our values, traditions and beliefs. In a materialistic age, when there is little of permanent value to believe in and retain, is it not just to celebrate those who came with nothing, built their lives and accumulated possessions, in the process, creating a new identity for themselves out of half-remembered customs from the homeland and the rough-and-ready activities of the West?

Adriana Albi Davies

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