by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
Celebrating Alberta's Italian Community website, as a first-attempt to develop a history of Alberta's Italian community, of necessity, will never be complete. Howard and Tamara Palmer, in their
Alberta: A New History, devote only a few sentences to Italian immigrants.1 There are several reasons for this: first, they were creating a broad narrative about province building that focuses on key people and key events; second, there was not a body of academic work that documents this history for them to draw on.
The settlement of Alberta was part of a national strategy that saw massive immigration as a tool for building a nation from coast to coast. The reasons why Italians began to immigrate to North
America were economic. As Sabatino Roncucci, a well-known Edmonton
educator has noted, late 19th century emigration from Italy was "the immigration of misery." The unification of Italy in the 1860s left some regions, particularly the south, feeling that their interests were not important to the new national government. This, and economic hardships and lack of work, resulted in mass emigration from both impoverished rural and urban areas. While the first choice of destination was the US, immigrants also went to Canadian urban centres, Montreal and Toronto, as well as mining communities in
Nova Scotia and Cape Breton. Check out the Canadian Overview.
The West had agricultural land aplenty and its development would assist in nation building by supplying agricultural products to the industrial East and by creating an additional market for eastern manufactured goods. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) arrived in Alberta in 1883 and it made Calgary the economic centre of the
Province. In the last decades of the 19th century, ranching was the initial economic driver but, thereafter, wheat became equally important.
Italian immigrants were not a significant part of the early settlement history of Alberta. They came, initially in a trickle as early as the 1880s, and in increasing numbers beginning in the last decade of the century. Various mining centres developed to provide the fuel required for transportation, industrial and domestic uses.
Immigration from Italy, in the first instance, was to obtain work in railways, mines and forestry camps but workers who might initially go to the mines, eventually, also made their way to the Province's principal
cities-Edmonton and Calgary. There, they undertook a range of work including construction and retail activities. A few also homesteaded and some even worked in the mines while farming. This was the first wave of immigration with a second, more limited wave, happening in the interwar years (1919-39), when immigration was restricted. The third phase, the largest, occurred post-1945 with the bulk of Italians coming in the
1951-68 period when immigration largely ceased as economic conditions in Italy improved. For a
broader discussion, please
go to the Canadian
From the beginning, workers came from all parts of Italy (for example,
Abruzzi, Calabria, Friuli, Molise, Udine, Tuscany, the Veneto).
Italian immigration in Alberta is regional in character because it is resource-based. It is also fluid in that labourers, whether miners, railway workers or others, moved where there was work. Oral histories tell of immigration to the US and movement back and forth between the US and Canada and, in Canada, from East to West. The following account provides a provincial overview and makes linkages between regions. For a detailed account including individual family histories,
check out the regional profiles.
immigrants to Alberta came from many of Italy's 20 main
regions. Click on a Region on the map of Italy to
find out more about that particular area.
view Edmonton-based artist Emilio Chisotti's
illustrations of the Regions of Italy, click