Emigration from Italy 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"). 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. Early Italians in Alberta found work as coal miners and railroad workers. This was work which required little training with a lot of will and endurance. By 1911, a large number of Italians lived in the province, many of them settling in coal mining areas, such as Blairmore and Coleman.
In 1914, the first Italian settlement colony was established north of Edmonton. These communities adopted the names of places in Italy, where many of the community members were from. They chose such names as Naples and Venice. Other communities where a large number of Italian Albertans chose to settle were in southern Alberta, in places such as Grassy Lake, and Iron Springs.
Early Canadian immigration policy, which prompted the first wave of emigration from Italy, was interested only in the capacity of men to do heavy work. As "strangers" in the new land, they moved to where real estate was cheapest and that was in inner-city areas where they created, for a time, "Little Italys." These inner-city areas centered along railway lines, factories and other places of employment.
Restrictive immigration practices as an aftermath of World War I meant that few Italians came to Canada in the inter-war years of 1919 to 1939 and, in fact, after 1929 only farmers were eligible to emigrate. Those Italians who were by now entrenched became assimilated and had more in common with English Canadians than with recent immigrants from Italy. Thus, within Italian communities, a "caste" system developed: those who were established and, in many cases, well off and the "needy" newcomers. With the loss of language and traditions, the "old-timers" also had very little in common with the newcomers. These immigrants also mostly went to urban areas, a trend which continued with the third wave of immigration after World War II. The immigration policy of the Canadian government was restrictive and racist as was all immigration policy of the time.
Following the Second World War, Alberta enjoyed another influx of Italian immigrants. These people who came were generally educated and highly skilled. Many of these immigrants, therefore, moved to the larger urban areas, such as Edmonton or Calgary.
As Europe struggled with unemployment and lack of food as an aftermath of the war and the devastation of the economies of Europe, the Canadian economy began to boom and there was an impetus to increase immigration. In 1947, the "enemy alien" designation for Italians was removed. The Italian government supported the immigration and, in 1948, the Canadian government opened a Rome embassy. While reconstruction work had begun in Italy, there were insufficient jobs in both urban and rural communities. According to oral history interviews, for one civil service or teaching job there might be up to 10,000 candidates who sat exams. Thus, emigration did not come just from the pool of unskilled labour but also from educated people who felt that their talents and skills were not appreciated in the homeland. Within Europe, France, Germany and Switzerland were favoured but other emigrants chose to go further afield to Canada, the US, Australia and South America.
The Italian government was active in facilitating the immigration of many Italians to Canada after the end of WWII. Stan Carbone quotes the following confidential dispatch from the Rome Embassy to Ottawa:
Surplus population is the fundamental Italian economic and social problem. . . . Overpopulation means extreme poverty for a great many Italian people, with a consequent large recruiting ground for the Communist Party. The unemployed in November, 1948 numbered almost two million. . . Any increase in emigration to Canada would be of practical help to Italy in tackling her gravest problem. It would also be a small but distinctly Canadian contribution to strengthening the present democratic 'Western' government and in making less likely its replacement by Communists or by extremists of the right.
This is a fascinating shift in the rationale for promoting immigration to Canada: from the need for workers to the consolidation of the western alliance in the fight against the Communist threat that was going to signal the start of the Cold War. Whatever the motivation, this spurred the coming to Canada of a large number of emigrants who moved beyond the traditional resource-based communities to reside across the country. Census figures suggest that there were 150,000 Italian-Canadians in 1951 and this jumped to 450,000 in 1961 and 747,970 in 1981. Franc Sturino notes: "In 1981, 65% of Italian Canadians lived in Ontario, 22% in Quebec and 7% in BC. About 95% of Italian Canadians live in towns and cities. The most significant concentrations are in Toronto, where in 1981 Italian Canadians numbered 297,205 (10% of the population), and in Montreal, where they numbered 156,535 or almost 6% of the population." He, further, notes that the following Canadian cities had over 10,000 Italian-Canadians: Hamilton, Vancouver, St. Catherines, Windsor, Ottawa, Sault St. Marie, Calgary and Edmonton.
The 1950s saw a flood of immigrants from Italy coming to Canada. Stanislao Carbone, writing
about Italians in Winnipeg, notes:
"Between 1946 and 1961 southern Italians made up 60 percent of the 250,000 Italians who entered Canada, and 20 percent of those were from the regions of Calabria and Abruzzi." I believe that it is this piece of information that has been used to imply that the majority of immigration to Canada, and Alberta, from the earliest part of the 20th century was from the south. Based on the family histories that I have used as well as oral histories, immigration from northern Italy to the various mining areas was significant. In fact, in the early part of the 20th century more people appeared to have come from the north than from the south. Antonella Fanella echoes Stan Carbone's findings for Calgary: