by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
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In the latter half of the 19th century, political unrest,
coupled with economic uncertainty, in many countries of the Old World resulted in a diaspora that brought many people to North America. This was opportune because governments in the United States and Canada were actively recruiting labourers to work in the mines, railways and forestry camps. Thus, as the Old World suffered from systemic political and economic turmoil and the abuse of minorities, the New World offered land,
opportunity and apparent tolerance of difference. For peasants whose families for generations had tended the estates of the gentry and for workers in mines, mills and industrial enterprises, the New World was a means of taking charge of their lives and improving the lot of the next generation.
With respect to emigration from Italy, this began in earnest in the 1880s. The unification of Italy, culminating in 1870, had not improved the lot of the great number of agricultural workers who lived in southern Italy or the
Mezzogiorno (literally, the "middle of the
day," that is, central Italy). This immigration has been described as the "immigration of misery." The Italian government of the time was conscious of this "surplus population" and facilitated emigration, just as Count Leo Tolstoy negotiated with the Canadian government to bring emigrants from the Ukraine to Alberta as the Ukrainian Block Settlement of the 1890s.
As early as 1881, Italian government officials were exploring the possibilities of emigration to Canada. Stan Carbone in
Italians in Winnipeg: An Illustrated History notes that a priest, Pietro Pisani, who traveled to North America, recommended "agricultural colonization to the Canadian West, particularly
Manitoba¹. This was logical because much of the western immigration came through Minneapolis-St. Paul to Winnipeg and then further west. The figures cited for emigration from Italy in the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century are as follows:
1866 and 1890-222,000 on average, left Italy annually
1896 to 1900-310,435 left annually
1913-this peaked to 872,000 ²