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   Early Years:  Urban Immigration

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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

The initial economic dominance of Calgary in Alberta was due to the choice of the southern route through the Rocky Mountains by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). This, coupled with the importance of ranching to the Alberta economy, meant that Calgary had an edge.The Provincial Legislature Building in Edmonton, Alberta's capital.  c1912.  Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-1289. But Edmonton quickly got its own back by succeeding in becoming the provincial capital. This likely made it a draw for Italians and may, perhaps, help to explain the fact that Edmonton's Italian community is larger and more cohesive than that of Calgary. Very few of the men who emigrated had actually any experience of working in mines. Many were agricultural workers but others had trades (carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, bakers, shoemakers, etc.) or had run small businesses. These men would have been drawn to urban communities. 

Besides its importance for coal mining and railway construction, Edmonton very early on became a "staging" ground for northern settlement and development. The Venice Colony at the Edmonton Railway Station in Sunday Best.  Courtesy of the Hylo-Venice Harvest of Memories History Book Committee. On August 28th, 1914, the Canadian Northern Station saw a party of 20 families from northern Italy leave on the Athabasca train to set up an agricultural colony near Lac La Biche. This was Alberta's second Italian colony and was called Venice because of the place of origin of many of the settlers. The Naples settlement had been established in 1905 but had not succeeded and one of the founding families, the Rusconis, was in Edmonton by 1915 and operating the Roma Hotel.  A contemporary newspaper article notes that the Venice colony was sponsored by the Società Vittorio Emanuele Terzo of Edmonton and Industrial Commissioner Hall's Department. It also notes that there were 600 Italians residing in Edmonton. Based on oral and family histories, it would appear that there was an established Italian community in Edmonton by just prior to World War I. Individuals and founding families, such as the Rusconi, Centazzo, Butti, Cantera and Azzano, lived in the Rossdale Flats and the Boyle Street area of the city (95th to 97th Streets and Jasper Avenue to 111th Avenue), Edmonton's current inner city.

According to Antonella Fanella in With Heart and Soul: Calgary's Italian Community, Calgary was not a destination for Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. TCalgary's Little Itay was in the area of Bridgeland.  Map from Antonella Fanella's book, With Heart and Soul.hey were heading for work in the mines. Eventually, they did come to settle in the city in the community of Bridgeland, located north of the Bow River near downtown Calgary. It was an attractive destination for various ethnocultural communities because of its affordable housing and nearby employment. She notes that the Italians were concentrated on First, Second and Third Avenues in Bridgeland while a few families also lived in the Hillhurst/Sunnyside district. She mentions a couple of Italian entrepreneurs who formed the short-lived Alberta Macaroni Company in 1907. Others opened small businesses including construction companies. A Mr. Cicconi was working in construction in Calgary and his daughter Giulia joined him in 1908. Professor Pompilio's Band.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. She married Nick Gallelli and they started Gallelli Construction. Domenico Gasbari [Gasberri] had worked in the Vermont granite quarries in the US in 1907-09 and came to Calgary where he ran a grocery store and repaired shoes. According to David Bly, history columnist with The Calgary Herald, the Santo family came to Carbon, near Drumheller in 1910 but in 1912, they moved to Calgary to work for the P. Burns Meat Co. The Cozzubbo family owned a confectionery store in Hillhurst, and the Violini family bought and sold coal. She also mentions that a Professor John J. Pompilio, who owned a music store, also organized a band that gave open-air concerts and played in Stampede parades for 20 years. 

Thus, in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as smaller urban centres like Lethbridge, Drumheller and the mining communities of the Rockies and Coal Branch, The Miglierina's store in Drumheller was a popular gathering place for young people and was known as "The Peeps"  Curly Miglierina is standing in front of the bake store's van.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. Italians set up small businesses-confectioners, grocery stores and bakeries, dairies and barbershops-and became rooted in their communities. As the mines closed, or old age and injuries forced them to leave, they gathered in the cities and strived to move from the working to the middle class. The notion that they were all unskilled and illiterate is not borne out in the oral histories. They were not literate in English but the large majority certainly had had some schooling in Italy. At that time, it was common to attend school from 3-5 years to become numerate and literate and, for the average person, that was all that was needed to function. These years of schooling were not equivalent to elementary schooling in Canada at the time.  The curriculum in Italy was broader.  Their ability to not only survive but thrive in adverse conditions and to find employment in a range of occupations, as well as to set up their own businesses, is a testimony not only to their determination but also to knowledge and skills they had acquired in the homeland. 

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Copyright © 2002 Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D. and The Heritage Community Foundation

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