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  Column in the Calgary Herald on May 3, 2002. 

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Riverside Rats

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 heart.

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 Italian culture.

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. George's Island.

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 for it.

David Bly, Heritage Writer
Calgary Herald

This article originally appeared in the May3, 2002 edition of the Calgary Herald. 
Reprinted with permission from the Calgary Herald and the author.

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