By David Bly
Jeep Santucci, Bill Galiardi and Tony Santo are
unquestionably Canadian, but there's no mistaking the
Italian in them. It touches the edges of their speech,
colours their humour and shapes their gestures. They grew up
along the north bank of the Bow River in an Italian
community that no longer exists, except as a place in the
They and their friends were called the Riverside Rats, for
the neighbourhood in which they lived. It might have been a
derogatory term at one time - they wear it proudly now. It's
a reminder of happy times, when money was short, but life
was rich. Families were raised on working-class wages. "The
most my dad ever earned was 40 bucks every two weeks," said
Tony. "He was a ditch digger for the city water works."
Jeep's grandparents, the Gasberris, came to Calgary in 1909.
Two years earlier, they had come from Italy to America where
Dominic Gasberri worked in the Vermont granite quarries. In
Calgary, Dominic opened the Roma Grocery in Riverside, home
for the city's small Italian community. He repaired shoes in
a shed behind the store. Tony's father came in 1910, his
mother in 1912. Bill was born in Carbon, east of Drumheller,
where his father worked in the coal mines. He decided coal
mining was a hard way to make a living, and moved to
Calgary, where he got a job with the P. Burns Meat Co.
"And that was harder work than mining," Bill said.
Hard work was nothing new to Calgary's early Italian
immigrants. Most of them came from areas where most of the
land was owned by the rich few, where labourers and artisans
worked long hours with no holidays, and barely survived. In
Canada, at least, they would have a chance to own a house,
or start a business. And they were free from the widespread
corruption in government and church that had kept them in
poverty in Italy. It was that corruption that helped shape
the Italian character, writes Antonella Fanella in With
Heart and Soul, an insightful study of Calgary's Italian
community. Government and church could not be trusted to
safeguard the interests of the common person." Each person
was expected to look after his own interests and those of
his family," Fanella writes. "Envy, jealousy and distrust
typified the attitudes toward those outside the family."
Bill, Jeep and Tony have travelled all over the world. None
of them has ever been to Italy. Jeep once offered his mother
a trip to Italy, but she wasn't interested - she had no
happy memories to draw her back. "We were very poor in
Italy," she said. "One time, we had to kill a cat to eat."
"We had poverty in Canada," said Tony, "but they had poverty
in Italy like nothing we have ever seen in Canada."
As much as the three Riverside Rats love their heritage,
there's no loyalty to Italy, no longing for the old country
passed on by their parents - for many of those early
immigrants, the Italy they knew was the Italy they fled.
They left the misery and corruption behind, and brought with
them the best of la via vecchia, the old ways:
reverence for the family, a strong sense of honour, the love
of music. "Music was everything," said Tony. A social
gathering was not complete without singing, and everyone
played an instrument or sang.
The music left its mark on the three Riverside Rats. They
all performed with bands in their younger days. Bill, noted
for his accordian playing, still performs. Next month, he
gets his 50-year pin from the musicians' union. Many of the
Italians had regarded the church with suspicion in the old
country, but in Calgary, the church became the community.
"The church was the centre of our whole society," Jeep said.
"Most of my association with the Italian community was with
the church or with the lodge." The lodge was the Giovanni
Caboto Loggia, named after the famed Italian explorer known
to many Canadian students as John Cabot, who claimed
Newfoundland for England while sailing under the British
flag. The lodge was formed as a benevolent society. It
safeguarded the interests of the community, and promoted
The Calgary Italian Club which celebrates the 50th
anniversary of its founding this weekend has its beginnings
in the Giovanni Caboto Loggia founded in 1918. "I
practically lived at the church - Our Lady of Perpetual
Care," said Jeep. "At Easter, I would be there the whole
week. I was an altar boy, I sang in the choir. "Christmas
Eve was the choir's time to shine. Midnight mass at
Christmas was such a big thing." At St. Angela's School,
said Jeep, "we had Scottish and Irish teachers, the best
teachers I've ever seen. They had St. Patrick's Day concerts
where they had all us little wops dressed in green bow ties
singing Irish songs."
Where the songs came from didn't matter. In the communities
of Riverside and Bridgeland, their friends were not only
Italian, but German, Ukrainian, Polish and Metis. "We didn't
care what they were," Jeep said. "There was never any sense
of not belonging. We were all Riverside Rats." It would be a
cosmopolitan group that would traipse up the hill that
overlooks the Bow River. Now, the hill is by a condo
complex. Then, it was covered with trees where they would
roast potatoes and hamburger patties over a campfire. When
the weather was warm, they'd swim in the backwaters by St.
An old photograph laid out on the table starts the friends
talking. It was taken about 1927 or 1928 at the annual
Italian picnic at Shouldice Park. Tony's in the picture,
five or six years old and proud of it. Jeep wasn't born then
and Bill was just a baby, but they still know many of the
faces. In the middle, holding instruments, are members of
John Pompilio's Italian Boys' Band. There's Reno Corradetti,
holding a clarinet. He became a photographer and had a
studio on 16th Avenue. Near the band is Audrey Denegri who
became Audrey Forzani and raised a family of athletes now
known for their athletic wear stores. There are Cionis, Di
Paolos, Gallos and Serras. They worked hard, they sang and
they raised good families.
Those families are thoroughly Canadian now - they don't live
in Riverside and many no longer speak Italian - but they
have woven many threads of la via vecchia into the
Canadian tapestry, and the fabric of a nation is stronger
David Bly, Heritage Writer
This article originally appeared in the
May3, 2002 edition of the Calgary Herald.
Reprinted with permission from the Calgary Herald and the