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In the 1920s, Italians became entrenched in the mining communities where they worked and, in
Nordegg, where they formed a significant portion of the work force their influence was felt. While the British, as in most communities in Alberta, were the elites, according to
Anne Belliveau, mining historian, for many in Nordegg, the Italians seemed to be the dominant society. Some had also made the move from working in the mines to setting up their own businesses and becoming community
The development of
Nordegg and the Coal Branch, as has been noted, was slightly later than the mining communities in the
area of Banff and the Crow's Nest Pass.
Anne Belliveau drew some interesting facts
to my attention that demonstrate competition between the
developers of Nordegg and the Coal Branch. The railway reached the Nordegg coal fields in March,
1914 and came west from Red Deer. William Mackenzie and Donald
Mann, of the Canadian Northern Railway, were partners with
the German Development Company in the Brazeau
Collieries. Mackenzie was President and Martin Nordegg
was Vice President. The Canadian Northern brought their
rail line in from the east, rather than from the north, in
order to slow development of the Coal Branch, which did not
have a spur rail line until the Grand Trunk took it on.
According to Belliveau, "This was deliberate on the part
of the Canadian Northern, to guarantee that the Brazeau
Collieries 'empire' would get the jump on the coal
markets." The total coal holdings of Brazeau
Collieries were 60 square miles and the original headquarters
were to be located 30 miles further into the mountains,
northwest of Nordegg's present location. Construction
had already begun but having the Nordegg field closer to Red
Deer settled the issue of what location would become the
headquarters. This made sense because it saved both time
and money and that is why Nordegg was developed first.
Martin Nordegg's coal claims covered an area from Grand Cache
region, south to Mount Allen in Kananaskis country. It
included the McLeod coal field, east of Mountain Park, and
that was the only connection to the Coal Branch. Nordegg was
approximately 70 miles south of the Coal Branch.
Within a year, a town had sprung up including 120 residential and commercial buildings including a hotel, theatre, churches, the Big Horn Trading Company store and a hospital. Martin Nordegg wanted to develop an ideal town and was aware of similar enterprises in Britain. As one commentator notes, "he was determined the dreadful living conditions of southern Alberta mining communities would not be a part of his community." But the honeymoon was short lived. With the declaration of war, he became an "enemy alien."
The international hostilities played themselves out at the local level and the Italians seem to have been the instigators in some incidents that made Nordegg feel uncomfortable in the community that he had built. Allied casualties at the hands of the Germans increased the hostility towards him and, when Italy joined the Allies, the Italians held a parade and flew the Italian flag on the flagpole outside Nordegg's house. It was ironic and inevitable that the federal government that had made his enterprise possible would
now recall him and that on June 1, 1914, he would board the train to Ottawa, a broken man. He was not interned, as a result of his powerful friends in Ottawa, and left to live in the US. The Canadian government took charge of stock held by the German Development
Company and Nordegg was removed from Brazeau's board. In 1919, the company changed the town's name to Brazeau, a move that was protested by some of the miners.
The town prospered with the mines in the 1920s but suffered during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Its population ranged from 1,000 to 3,000. Some interesting information on Nordegg is found in Anne (McMullen) Belliveau's book
Small Moments in Time.
" She cites the 1925 study by the Royal Commission on Coal on the ethnic distribution of the majority of Alberta mines. As the 1919 study had indicated, the British was the largest group, the Slavs were second and the Italians were third. She notes, "However, the source-countries of Nordegg's immigrants were largely British and Italian, since a disproportionately high number of Italian workmen had followed Johnny Shanks from Fernie to Nordegg, but Central European immigration after World War I created more diversity in Nordegg's ethnic structure."
4 Further, the report indicates that Nordegg had the highest percentage of Italian workmen of any mining area in Alberta. The high percentage of British workers is not unusual because Britain was a major producer of coal and skilled miners did emigrate to improve their lot encouraged by the Canadian government. According to Belliveau,
The Nordegg Italian population was drawn from specific locations within certain Italian provinces, but the provinces from which they came were widely scattered. Approximately 30% came form Sicily and Calabria, the most southern provinces. The original homeland of these Italians was one of the poorest in Italy. About 30% of Nordegg's Italian population had come from the province of Abruzzi in the mid-regions of Italy, along the Adriatic coast, southeast of Rome, while the remaining 40% came from the northern areas of Veneto, Friuli and
She also provides more detailed information on the Nordegg Italian Society and notes that the Grand Lodge of the society was located in Fernie
thereby confirming what was said by Enrico Butti. She provides this detail: "A per capita assessment was sent from the local Lodge to the Grand Lodge and this covered long-term problems. If a member was sick and unable to work, the local Lodge paid $1.00 per day to a maximum number of days, after which the Grand Lodge took on the responsibility. Upon death of a member, $100.00 was given to the family. Meetings were held on a regular basis and this acted as a sounding board for members to help each other look for solutions to problems."
6 She further notes that these self-help societies kept them independent from Canadian support institutions. This is an interesting observation and whether the independence is the result of the desire to control their own destinies or the politics of exclusion is a moot point.
One of the results of the hostilities of War was Canadian government restrictions on immigration and an emphasis on agricultural workers. While initially many men came to "make their fortunes" and return, others chose to stay and make Canada their home. Family unification was, thus, an important issue. Belliveau recounts that in 1922 Stuart Kidd wrote a letter recommending that a local miner's family be allowed to come indicating that he had a good job and could repay the fare. It was customary for sons to join their father and, sometimes, the mother never came either for financial reasons or because the she could not bear to leave her homeland. An early article by Robert F. Harney is titled "Men Without Women: Italian Immigrants in Canada: 1885-1930."
7 In this important essay, Harney begins to examine the impact of restrictive immigration policy and its impact on families including family breakdown.