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  Alberta's Italian Community:  Interwar Period

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Year of the Coal Miner September 2003 - 2004

by Adriana Albi Davies, Ph.D.

An outcome of WW I was the imposition of further restrictions on immigration with preference given to agricultural workers. This meant that emigration from Italy was largely limited to family reunification; however, individuals did continue to come.  Antonella Fanella, in With Heart and Soul: Calgary's Italian Community, notes that in the 1920s Calgary saw additional immigration.The P. Burns and Company packing plant in Calgary, Alberta, employed Italian immigrants.  c.1910s.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives. In 1921, the community numbered 425 according to the Canadian Census. She mentions that the immigrants were farm labourers from Antrodoco in the Lazio region (central Italy), as well as from Abruzzi (south), the Veneto and Piemonte (north).Mario Grassi was the assistant maître d' at the Palliser Hotel, Calgary, Alberta.  Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives.  c.1920s. Some also came from Nordegg as the mining operations declined. The men worked with the CPR, the City of Calgary, Burns Meat Packing Plant and the Calgary Brewery. Women also worked at Burns in the dairy department while others worked at the Palliser Hotel where an Italian, Mario Grassi, was the assistant maître d'.1  Angelina Rebaudengo and Cesira Di Paolo worked as furriers while other women worked in service industries. Angelina's husband, Antonio, became the honorary Italian consul (1936-38) because, according to Fanella, he was fully literate and had been assisting his fellow immigrants from the mid-1920s.  

Immigration to Edmonton in this period was individual and also family reunification. There are numerous examples revealed in the oral and family histories. Giuseppe Lavorato came to Canada in 1898 at the age of 14 to work in the mines. Mr. Domenico Chiarello worked as a miner in Edmonton's river valley and in Legal, Alberta.  Photo from the booklet Italians Settle in Edmonton.He came to Edmonton in 1905 and arranged a marriage, being joined by his wife Teresa in 1919. Domenico Chiarello was 15 years old when he left Naples on the 1st of May, 1924, with his Mother to join his Father who was working as a coal miner. Silvio Tona came from the Sondrio region, Lombardia, on the 27th of June, 1900 to join a relative who lived in Rimbey and who operated a farm. He stayed on the farm only briefly and then went to work in the mines for 25 years. Others who came in this era include John Segatti, Sam Scrivano, Camillo Bridarolli and Tony Nimis.  Each story is individual yet the same in the quest to improve economic circumstances and find a better future. 

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. 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 Vincenzo Potestio 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 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.  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 of Winnipeg.  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.

The labour agents continued to play an important role not just in the bringing of workers from Italy but also moving them to areas of the country where there were jobs. Important families were the Veltris, Nigros and Anselmos. Giovanni Veltri and his brother Vincenzo, who changed their names to John and Vincent Welch, 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 (including various Alberta centres) and British Columbia.Fedele Nigro raised draft horses, which were used for road and railway construction.  Popular heavy horses were the Clydes and Percherons.  Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton Archives EA 10-1311 The Nigro and Anselmo families were important Alberta families. In 1920, Fedele Nigro moved his family to Clive, 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 Joffre and the move to Edmonton in 1925. 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. 

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

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