by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
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The immigration policy of the Canadian government was restrictive and
racist as was all immigration policy of the time. Social
Darwinism preached that the British were the
"superior" race and others ranked below
them. Southern Europeans and others were considered lazy and unsuitable for the settlement of the West, which is what the Government of Canada wished to do, beginning in the late 19th century with the signing of Treaties 7 and 8 with the Aboriginal People of the area.
Harney quotes Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, speaking to a Deputy Minister: "No steps are to be taken to assist or encourage Italian immigration to Canada. . . . You will of course understand that this is to be done without saying anything that will be
offensive." Viewed through a contemporary lens, Sifton is a racist; however, it is important to remember that he was simply expressing a common belief of his time. As Howard
and Tamara Palmer point out in
Alberta: A New History, Sifton was a Manitoba lawyer and Cabinet Minister who dedicated his career to peopling the West.
They write: "Laurier and Sifton were guided by the economic and nationalistic motives that had fueled Macdonald's
national policy. Sifton altered the land-grant system, through which speculators and colonization companies had tied up much of the best land. He simplified the process of securing homesteads and placed new emphasis on the campaign to attract
immigrants." Sifton's racial views reflected a world-view based on social Darwinism that saw various ethnocultural groups in a hierarchical structure with people of British origin at the apex.
The Canadian Pacific Railway and the Dominion Coal Company wanted Italian workers as did other industrial enterprises. They were accommodated by labour agents such as John Welch [Giovanni Veltri] from Grimaldi who supplied workers by facilitating their emigration. The brothers Vincenzo and Giovanni Veltri, emigrated from Grimaldi, Italy, in August 1885. They came as labourers working on the railroads and ended up as labour agents bringing workers from their native southern Italy to work on the railways. This work was continued by their nephew Raffaele [Ralph] Welch who operated the R. F. Welch company from Port Arthur, Ontario.
This first wave of emigration from Italy was mostly men and, initially, they came to make money so that they could buy land back in Italy and improve their lot. They were exploited and wrote home about it. In 1901, the
Sera [Evening Courier] newspaper in Milan ran articles that prompted questions in the Italian Parliament about conditions in Canada. The newspaper did an expose on an immigration ring involving steamship agents, labour bureaus and the so-called
padroni or Italian labour agents [literally, "bosses"], who brought these workers to Canada. In 1909, the Italian government sent a Captain Dante Viola to report on the plight of Italian miners in Cobalt, Ontario. Harney writes:
Viola reported that the men received low wages, had neither employment security nor insurance though working at job sites where much dynamiting was done and in mines without proper shoring, and lived in camps which were mosquito ridden and squalid in summer, barren and unheated in winter. At all times of the year, profiteers overcharged the men for food and drink. It was estimated that men in the camps paid five times the Montreal price for canned anchovies and mouldy bread. Food costs and even rent for bunk-car space were deducted from their pay by the employer.1
These labour agents, in the first years of the 20th century, recruited too many men to Montreal with the result that they were perceived to be detrimental to the public good and a potentially criminal element. This prompted the
Royal Commission to Inquire into the Immigration of Italian Labourers to Montreal and the Alleged Fraudulent Practices of Employment
Agencies. Harney notes that, while men with Anglo-Saxon names (Burns and Mortimer Waller) were clearly involved, the xenophobic press focused blame on Antonio Cordasco, the steamship agent, banker and entrepreneur who had attempted to meet his clients' needs for cheap labour.