Since their arrival in Winnipeg in the late 1800s, Italians have crafted and honed skills essential to meeting the challenges and demands of social and environmental pressures. They have demonstrated adroitness and creativity in negotiating their identities (adapting their value systems to the dictates of Canadian industrial life and cultural mores) in order to satisfy their moral, intellectual and economic needs.
This has not been an easy feat when one considers that at times they were defined as undesirables by a dominant Anglo-Protestant political and economic elite and corresponding world view that favoured immigrants from Great Britain and northern Europe. Rather than bystanders or passive actors in the sweep of history, Italians have been major protagonists in changing Winnipeg's social and cultural landscape.
The historian Roberto Perin noted that the history of Italians in Canada has been one of arrangiarsi, which means to fashion values and skills reflective of individual and collective needs and pivotal to addressing the vagaries, nuances and contradictions of the different phases in the emigration-immigration adaptation process. For those who decided to settle permanently in Canada, arrangiarsi was manifested in various areas such as the world of work. The workplace constituted an important arena of interaction with Canadian society; here they were to learn about the rules, values and norms of their new land and to meet immigrants from all over the world.
In the early 1900s, Winnipeg Italians, especially those from Sicily and Molise, operated numerous fruit and confectionery stores that dotted Winnipeg's economic landscape. Others plied various trades such as shoemaking, tailoring and tile making. Both the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railways hired Italians to carry out a range of tasks such as laying tracks, carpentry, painting, welding, to name a few. The railway contractors, Giovanni and Vincenzo Veltri, played important roles in recruiting Italian labour for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Their work was continued by their son, Raffaele, who created the R.F. Welch Company out of Port Arthur, Ont., and was able to procure a lucrative contract from the Canadian government that resulted in the importation of hundreds of labourers mostly from the region of Calabria.
Many Italians started as farm labourers but moved to Winnipeg lured by the prospect of better-paying jobs and closer proximity to family, friends and emerging Italian organizations. Some made the leap from proletarian to small-business owner as a means to escape from the regimentation and oppression of industrial capitalism to where they were able to exert more control and creativity over their work lives and economic existence.
In 1945, Italy emerged from 20 years of fascism and the ravages of war, barely intact. Social and economic reconstruction was a painful process as the country sought to leave its past behind and forge a new direction. This would tax the energies of all Italians but especially the lower middle class, working class and peasantry. Emigration became a significant course of action for many of these people. Between 1946 and 1961, southern Italians made up 60 per cent of the approximately 250,000 Italians that entered Canada. While most were to settle in Ontario (especially the city of Toronto and environs) some settled in other parts of Canada, including Manitoba.
This wave of immigrants consisted of carpenters, bricklayers, mechanics, tailors, some white-collar workers and university graduates and tended to be better educated than their pre-war counterparts. In the late 1960s, the federal and Manitoba governments in conjunction with the Western Garment Manufacturers Association of Western Canada actively recruited Italians, mostly from the Puglia region to meet the burgeoning needs of the local needle-trades industry. As a result of this arrangement, some 232 individuals settled in Winnipeg.
While that sector of the working class that goes by the description of manual and unskilled still represented a non-negligible component of the Winnipeg Italian population into the 1970s, there was a noticeable increase in the number of foremen, supervisors -- in short -- those occupations associated with the "labour aristocracy." In addition, Italians made their presence in various fields such as business administration, education, law, medicine and the civil service.
From the early days of the fruit and confectionery stores, private entrepreneurship has been a regular feature of the Winnipeg Italian social and economic reality. Throughout the post-war era, Italians have operated restaurants, hairdressing salons, and masonry contracting firms, real estate agencies and tailor shops. Many of these have been family ventures, a factor that may go a long way in explaining why they were able to demonstrate a remarkable degree of resiliency during periods of economic slowdown or recession, and in an age in which monopoly capitalism was casting its ominous shadow.
They have also had the effect of enhancing our city's quality of life by bringing to it a rich and textured flavour as well as a sense of vibrancy and dynamism.
In short, the social, cultural and economic history of Winnipeg Italians is a history of change, adaptation and growth. It is a history from which much can be learned. Today we are confronted with the task of forging an identity in an age in which rapid technological growth and an ever-expanding global economy are imposing new strains and aggressive rhythms of growth. Traditional values and mores are being transformed, while others have been torn asunder and heaped onto history's great dustbin.
One thing is certain; because we are caught in this whirlwind of cataclysmic change, we had better sharpen our skills of arrangiarsi. To do this, we would best be advised to take a page from Winnipeg Italian legacy which has sought to find meaning and purpose amidst the chaos of social change.
Stanislao Carbone is vice-consul of Italy in Winnipeg and director of programs and exhibits with the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada.