by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.
According to Howard Palmer, by 1921, there were 4000 Italians in the Province of Alberta.¹ As expected, they are working in mines in the Crowsnest Pass, Drumheller, Nordegg and Lethbridge. While Palmer mentions "little Italies" with reference to these southern Alberta locations, and the agricultural colonies in Naples (1905) and Venice, he does not mention Edmonton.
Establishing the history of Italian settlement in Edmonton is a challenge and can only be done
by means of the oral record: the oral histories done in the early 1970s by the Dante Alighieri
Society; those done in the 1980s by the Italians Settle in Edmonton Society;
and, finally, those that are being done for
the Celebrating Edmonton's Italian Community.
An outcome of World War I was the imposition of further restrictions on immigration with preference given to farmers. This meant that immigration from Italy was limited to family reunification. Thus, the principal source for population growth within Edmonton's Italian community was workers leaving the mines
and itinerant labourers in construction
from other areas that were seeking to improve their conditions. Another factor was the
movement of workers from the US to Canada, as we have seen in the Len
Bonifacio account of the Venice colony. These
individuals were engaged in a variety of work including mining in
the coal mines along the River Valley, retail and market gardening
as well as farming outside the city.
immigration history of the Albi/Potestio families shows this
mobility. Francesco Potestio in the 1880s went from Grimaldi to the US. He was joined by his wife, Teresa, and they operated a bakery. They returned to Italy where
their son, Vincenzo, was born in 1881and, again, returned to the US when he was nine. This meant that he had American citizenship. The family, again, returned to Italy and
Vincenzo, as a young man, emigrated in his own right in 1914 ending up in Port Arthur where he worked for the railways as a cook on the train gangs until his death in 1950. Thus, Italian labourers were amazingly mobile and, if a family member or
paesano, told them of work, they would go there and the
American border was not an impediment.
Paolo Veltri emigrated to Canada in 1927-28 but took a train to the US for work. Eventually, he was spotted by immigration authorities and deported to Italy. He would, then, return to Canada in 1949, sponsored by Ottavio Iachetta to work in Winnipeg briefly before coming to
With respect to the construction industry, important families are the
Anselmos. In August 1885, Antonio Nigro and Giovanni Veltri left Grimaldi in Calabria for New York. Antonio's wife Anna, was Giovanni's sister.
² According to family records, they first went to Montana where Giovanni's brother Vincenzo was working for the Montana Central Co., which was building a railway from Helena to Missouri. Then, in May 1887, they moved to Spokane before going on to British Columbia where they worked on a contract for the CPR on the Nelson-Slocan branch.
Antonio's son Fedele (Felix) joined them in 1897 at the age of 15. They all worked in construction in both western and eastern Canada. Starting as labourers, they quickly acquired expertise with explosives and rock blasting, which was necessary for railway building in the Rockies. Contracts included the Croswnest Pass from Kootenay Landing to Goat River, work in Penticton, Grand Forks, Nelson and Winnipeg (1902). In 1905 they worked on the line between Winnipeg and Fort William. In 1906, Fedele became a partner of the Welchs and worked in Saskatchewan, Kenora and Port Arthur. In 1913, Fedele returned to Italy to marry Amelia Anselmo and returned to Canada on March 31, 1913 and settled in Winnipeg. These relationships, of both blood and geography, between men from the same community, paesani, became important in Italian settlement in Canada.
Giovanni Veltri and his brother Vincenzo Veltri changed their names to John and Vincent Welch and became labour agents who brought workers from their region of Italy, the Province of Calabria, as well as neighbouring regions. The company they established became, under their nephew Ralph, the W.H. Welch company based in Port Arthur, Ontario. Another key individual is a friend of the Welch brothers, Frank Albi of Winnipeg. Together, they not only brought labour from Italy but also ensured its movement through Ontario, to Winnipeg and western Canada (Edmonton, Calgary) and British Columbia. In 1920, Fedele Nigro moved his family to Clyde, Alberta where he farmed and also raised
draft horses, which were used for road construction. Fedele's son,
Joseph Antonio Maria (Bill) Nigro, born in Winnipeg on January 11, 1914 remembers the family homestead in Jeffrey and the move to Edmonton in 1925.
By this time, the family was prosperous and lived initially in the Devonshire Apartments, then the Lemarchand Mansion, before moving to their own home, a large two-storey on 113 Street near St. Joseph's Cathedral. The extended family of the Nigros and Anselmos became a force in Edmonton's Italian community able to help immigrants to find work and they were particularly important and influential in the post-World War II economic boom in Alberta.