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Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society

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"The Italian, like the Irishman, is a bundle of contradictions. He is hot-headed and quick-tempered; yet he is good-natured, kind, obliging; he is gay, fun-loving, light-hearted: yet he takes the every-day duties of life as seriously as he takes religion; he is generous and yet will deny himself the necessities of life to save money. Hot-blooded, volatile, when compared with the Anglo-Saxon, artistic in temperament, industrious, easily influenced for good or bad, the Italian immigrant is an interesting addition to our population."

-- The Manitoba Free Press, Jan. 18, 1913

 

The first ones sent word back home the streets were paved with gold. That wasn't necessarily the case, but their indomitable spirit, strong work ethic and family devotion would raise Winnipeg's Italian immigrants above their peasant roots. They toiled in rail yards and factories, but they also opened grocery stores, tailor shops, restaurants and other businesses. From agrarian worker to proletariat to entrepreneur, they also introduced their new home to an Old World tableau of language, cuisine and customs.

 

-- -- --

 

It was more than 50 years ago, but Joe Bova can still recall the moment he decided to come to Canada.

He was 13. It was summer, and his Uncle Rocco, who had already emigrated, was back in San Roberto, a town of about 4,000 residents in the Calabria region of southern Italy, for a visit.

"He's wearing this white nylon shirt -- so white it blinded you in the sun. And dark pants," Bova recalls. "We had rags for clothes in those days. This guy was sticking out like a sore thumb."

Uncle Rocco also stood out because he had money in his pocket. The railway worker was using it to treat Bova and his buddies to beer at a seaside bar and regaling them with stories about his new life in a place called Winnipeg.

Then came the clincher.

"He tells us, 'We work really hard over there, but on Saturday nights, we all go to clubs and we meet girls and we dance with them.'

"In those days, in my town, if I so much as looked at a girl the wrong way, I would get a licking. That convinced me I had to come here," says Bova, who promptly dropped out of school to work as a barber's apprentice.

 

He landed in Winnipeg in 1962 at the age of 15 -- too young, it turned out, for the full-time job he'd expected would launch him into the kind of life he'd heard about on the Italian seashore. So he went to school to learn English instead.

Today, Bova, 65 -- who recently retired as head of a construction company with $250 million in annual sales -- counts that reality check as the first in a "series of small miracles" that enabled him to realize the dream that lured hundreds of thousands of Italians to Canada.

Many who came had a rude awakening.

"There was an expectation, a perception that Canada was the land of gold. It was perpetuated by immigrants who would go back and say they were doing extremely well -- and that may have not been the case," says local historian Stan Carbone, author of The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold: A Social History of Italians in Winnipeg.

"The overwhelming majority of Italians who immigrated to Canada, even into the 1950s, were peasants and working class," he adds. "That was the reality."

Their hosts didn't exactly roll out the welcome mat when the first Italians came to Manitoba to provide cheap labour for the agricultural sector and the expansion of western railroads.

Canada's immigration policy, in the years leading up to the First World War, favoured emigrants from northern Europe, who were considered of the right "moral stock." Southern Europeans and Asians were on the lower end of the totem pole, with Italians the least desirable of all, says Carbone, who also wrote Italians in Winnipeg: An Illustrated History.

As Carbone documents in the book, Clifford Sifton, the minister responsible for immigration from 1896 to 1905, even wrote his deputy minister this blunt order: "I have explained at least a dozen times that I don't want anything done to facilitate Italian immigration."

They came anyway.

In 1913 -- a record year for Italian emigration -- the Manitoba Free Press reported more than 2,000 Italians living in Winnipeg. The paper ran a full-page feature under the banner Cosmopolitan Winnipeg (subhead: The Latin People).

The article discussed the immigrants' "hindrances to progress" -- namely illiteracy and a slowness to learn English -- as well as their promise:

"Remember that they always have begun at the very bottom of the hill. Their intense eagerness to get along gives a kind of certainty to the prophecy. Their industry, thrift and willingness to do any kind of work is in their favour. Their independence of charity is not to be forgotten when counting up the probabilities of their success."

Today, there are an estimated 18,500 people of Italian origin living in Winnipeg. Their success stories can be found in every sector of public and private life.

While 75 per cent of post-Second-World-War immigrants were employed in low-income occupations, that changed dramatically with second and subsequent generations. By the mid 1980s, the children of immigrants had achieved a level of higher education on par with the national average.

Italian Canadians have the highest rate of home ownership in the country. By the 1980s, 86 per cent owned their own home, compared with 70 per cent generally.

Some of the biggest homebuilders in Winnipeg today came from his village, says Bova, who co-founded Manshield Construction, one of the largest construction companies in Canada, in 1989.

His Uncle Giuseppe was the first person from San Roberto to settle here, but more than 300 others would eventually follow.

"Uncle Joe," who came to work on the CN Railways, spent the first three years living in a box car, Bova says, so he could save enough money to start sponsoring family and friends.

That might be an example of the "industry" the Manitoba Free Press referred to that enabled Italian immigrants to rise from their peasant roots and successfully adapt to Canadian society.

The Italians have another term for it: "L'art d'arrangiarsi." Literally, "the art of arranging," but more roughly it means "the art of getting by."

Tracing their history, it becomes clear why they learned to master the art.

Arrangiarsi was cultivated in Italy as a means of coping with adverse living conditions -- poverty, overpopulation and natural disaster -- and became an integral part of the peasant's world view.

It also prepared the emigrant to make the transition from the old world to the new during the late 1800s, when emigration was becoming an important lynchpin in the machinery of world capitalism, says Carbone, who was born in the southern town of San Giovanni in Fiore and immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1960, at the age of three.

"So while the intellectuals and politicians wrote and debated about emigration, millions of Italians, with virtually empty pockets but tremendous inner resolve and an abundance of moral fortitude -- attributes which were integral elements of arrangiarsi -- accepted emigration as a means to preserve their pride and dignity," he writes in The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold.

The Italians who came to Winnipeg before the First World War were mostly "contadini" and "braccianti" (peasants and labourers) from the southern regions of Calabria, Sicily and Molise.

Unlike northern Italy, which dominated the newly formed (1861-70) Italian state and continued to industrialize, southern Italy remained rural and traditional.

The dichotomy between feudalism and the emerging industrial capitalism wreaked havoc on Italian society. Overpopulation, poverty, poor health and educational conditions, heavy taxation and political dissatisfaction acted to push emigration. Meanwhile, the low cost of ocean travel, the promise of higher wages and success stories from family and friends in the New World pulled Italians to Canada.

The first wave started to arrive in Winnipeg in 1870. By 1901, there were 147 people of Italian origin residing here. That number increased to 769 in 1911, 1,311 in 1921 and 1,664 by 1941.

The majority of these immigrants were men -- in 1913, the Manitoba Free Press reported the ratio of men to women among Italians in Winnipeg was as high as seven to one. Many had left unproductive and highly taxed lands only to work long hours for low wages, mostly at seasonal, physically demanding jobs in railroad construction and maintenance, mines and building projects.

There was even a special phrase coined for them: "birds of passage," since many never intended to stay here.

 

Sam Loschiavo's father, Francesco, was one of them. He arrived in Winnipeg in 1913, at age 16, to work for a contractor that was building railway lines across the Prairies.

"The idea was to stay here for a year or two to earn enough money to go back and get married and raise a family in the old country," says Loschiavo, 88, a retired entomologist and Order of Canada recipient.

"It wasn't to be, though. It wasn't steady work, and then in October or November, the railway laid them off. Plus, the wages were low, and so they had a heckuva time trying to save enough money."

Some men left wives and children behind in Italy because they expected to return. These "men without women" carried the dual responsibilities of supporting themselves and sending a portion of their meagre savings back home.

On top of that, according to Carbone, official society -- politicians, journalists, business people and religious leaders, etc. -- would often castigate them for their "voracious sexual appetites and immoral conduct."

To save money, the men lived together in boarding houses, two to four men in a room. Board was cheap -- around $3 a month, often including laundry -- but there wasn't much socializing except among themselves. And their limited knowledge of English prevented them from connecting with the larger community.

Still, for a group of immigrants for whom allegiance to one's hometown (campanilismo) was often stronger than their sense of being Italian, especially for those who came from rural areas, the boarding house served as a symbol of stability and recreated kinship and familial ties from the old country.

"A lot of boarding houses were owned by other Italian people," Loschiavo says, "so they had a sense of togetherness there, a bit of a social network you might say."

It was at a boarding house/grocery store run by the Scerbo family that his father met his mother, Caterina Scerbo, whom he married in 1923. In the late '20s, they opened Tivoli Confectionery in Transcona -- one of Winnipeg's first Little Italys. The other two settlements that emerged around this time were in the West End and Fort Rouge, near the shops of the Canadian National Railway.

Despite tighter immigration restrictions following the First World War, by 1930 more than 29,000 Italians had entered Canada. Many of them were farm workers or wives and children who were being sponsored by breadwinners living in Canada.

That movement, however, pretty much ended with the Great Depression. And while their strong family networks and thriftiness helped them cope with the unemployment and scarcity, Italian immigrants faced a new set of problems after 1935, when they became the target of Canadian hostility against fascism.

Some sectors of Canadian society, namely the political and economic elite, initially approved of it.

"Fascism was believed to have saved capitalism from falling apart in Italy," Carbone explains, which appealed to many North American businessmen and political leaders.

As he points out in his books, Italian Catholic parishes across Canada, played a key role in promoting fascism and the principles of Italianita (the Italian spirit or essence) as defined by official Fascist doctrine. But none so zealously as in Winnipeg.

"Whereas in major centres such as Toronto and Montreal, the church was one of a variety of organizations that carried out these objectives, in Winnipeg, it had a virtual monopoly," he writes in Italians in Winnipeg.

Canadian public opinion did an about-face in 1935 when Italy invaded Ethiopia. Then, when Italy allied with Germany in the Second World War, Italian-Canadians were designated "enemy aliens" and subjected to discrimination and prejudice.

Loschiavo recalls his father talking about how he and his co-workers at the CNR shops, all Canadian citizens, would converse in Italian over lunch. But then the war broke out, and one day a group of self-appointed CNR spokesmen confronted them and one man declared, in a hostile and condescending tone: "OK, there'll be no more Italian spoken here. There's a war on you know. From now on, you speaka da English," Loschiavo says.

 

During that time, people lost their jobs, businesses were vandalized and civil liberties suspended under the War Measures Act. Things intensified when Italy declared war on Canada on June 10, 1940.

That day, Prime Minister Mackenzie King ordered the internment of some 700 Italian-Canadians who were identified as enemy aliens by the RCMP. No Italians in Winnipeg were interned.

However, many were still subjected to the close scrutiny of the RCMP, to whom they were required to report on a monthly basis. And certain activities, such as meetings of the Roma Society and Italian language classes, became illegal.

"Organized life during the war was virtually halted," says Carbone. "You really couldn't belong to any organization, except the Holy Rosary Church."

On Aug. 19, the Italian Canadian League of Manitoba unveiled a new monument and interpretive pathway at the Caboto Centre. The plaque reads: "In commemoration of the Italian-Canadians in Manitoba adversely affected by the Canadian War Measures Act during World War II."

The war years left tears in the fabric of Italian-Canadian life, especially for the youth, who began to distance themselves from their ethnic roots.

"The reactivation of Italian organizations was left to those who were still willing to assert their ancestral identity in a social climate which was unfavourable and to the new wave of immigrants unaware of the macabre events of the war," Carbone writes.

"It took at least 10 years for Winnipeg Italians to mend whatever sense of belonging they had been able to knit in the great Canadian tapestry prior to the war."

Italy itself, meanwhile, emerged barely intact.

The economy, especially in the south, had been ravaged by war and unemployment rates were among the highest in Europe. There was a hunger for land among the peasantry, Carbone says, and while the Italian government tried to address the inequities of ownership, the parcels of land it allotted were too small and unproductive.

Once again, the Italians were forced to emigrate.

This new wave of immigration boosted Winnipeg's Italian population significantly in the 1950s and '60s. In 1951, 1,743 people of Italian origin lived in the city. By 1961, that number had more than tripled to 4,216, and by 1971 it had grown to 6,770.

This time, most of those who came -- again predominantly from the south -- had been able to amass at least some savings from selling their small parcels of land or their crops. Among them were skilled workers or artisans -- carpenters, bricklayers, mechanics and tailors -- as well as unskilled labourers, along with some university students and scholars.

Post-war Italian immigrants had a higher level of education than their pre-war counterparts, Carbone notes, but it was still low by Canadian standards.

Mario Audino was 19 and knew no English when he arrived in Winnipeg with his parents in 1964. One of his earliest memories is walking through the Corydon neighbourhood, seeing a bunch of For Sale signs and wondering "What are they going to do with all that salt?" he recalls. "Sale" is the Italian word for salt.

He did have a diploma in building technology -- which put him in the minority, he says.

"When I came, there were probably a dozen young people who came from Italy with some degree of education," says Audino, 67, a language instructor in the University of Winnipeg's Italian studies program.

"The majority were workers who were having problems finding jobs in Italy. They came here for economic reasons and 90 per cent of them did not have the opportunity to go to school in Italy."

Like Bova, Audino enrolled in a local high school to learn English.

"I knew if you wanted to progress and get a good job, you had to speak the language," he says. Being bilingual got him a sales job at a lumber yard, which put him in contact with Italian contractors who had begun buying and fixing up houses.

Most new immigrants around that time, however, went to work in restaurants and factories. And unlike in earlier periods, female immigrants were now being recruited as cheap labour, especially in emerging industries.

Between 1945 and 1975, Carbone notes, nearly half of the more than three million immigrants who came to Canada were women.

The last major influx of Italians to Winnipeg occurred in 1967 and 1968. A total of 232 people -- including 94 single women -- arrived during the months of July and August 1967. Most of the women had been sponsored by the Western Garment Manufacturers Association of Western Canada.

Their wages helped support families through periods of seasonal unemployment for the men, Carbone explains, or paid for living expenses so the men's paycheques could be put into savings accounts and used toward the purchase of a house.

Of course, ever since Winnipeg's first Sicilians -- Leonardo Emma and Giuseppe Panaro -- opened a fruit and confectionery store on Main Street in 1892, entrepreneurship has also played a key role in Winnipeg's Italian history.

"Throughout the post-war era, Italian-owned restaurants, hairdressing salons, grocery stores, masonry contracting firms, real estate agencies and tailor shops dotted Winnipeg's economic landscape at an unprecedented level," Carbone writes.

 

Many of these businesses were family ventures, he adds, which helps explain why they were able to show remarkable resilience during the periods of economic slowdown to come.

After all, "la famiglia," both nuclear and extended, has always been the most significant social institution among Italian-Canadians. In the new world, Carbone points out in his book, it took on an importance of "almost mythical proportions" and "provided a sense of order and camaraderie in a society which was potentially debilitating to the psyche."

They grew up Canadian, but Winnipeg siblings Sebastian and Maria Nucci always knew they'd one day take over the family business.

"My father kept on saying that. He kept drilling it into our heads: 'I'm doing this for you, you know. This will all be yours.' He said that six months before he died," Maria, 48 recalls.

Some 36 years after Gino Nucci (who died in 2011) opened Nucci's Gelati on Corydon Avenue, his wife, Rosa, and children still run the iconic shop on their own, seven days a week.

Nucci, who worked at a post office back in Italy, worked at Pioneer Electric and Old Dutch Potato Chips before he and Rosa -- she did piecework in a garment factory -- opened a variety store and later a billiards hall, on Corydon, a few doors down from the current gelati shop.

Her father chose Corydon because it was near their home on Warsaw Avenue, says Maria. At one point, she recalls, their three-bedroom home housed 10 people.

In the '70s, Nucci travelled to Rome to learn how to make the frozen treat, returned with a special machine that took 15 people to carry and opened Nucci's Gelati. The family moved above the shop, where Rosa still lives.

But Maria and Sebastian admit they don't know how much longer their father's legacy will last.

"Work was social, work was everything. They kind of gave up their lives to run the business," says Sebastian, 51.

"That's all they knew," Maria adds. "And they instilled that in us, of course."

She still loves the long days, she says. But Maria has no children, and Sebastian says his kids, ages 24 and 20, are likely to have other plans after they finish university.

"Things have changed," he says. "The commitment is not the same."

And, as the Nuccis are well aware, Little Italy isn't really Italian anymore. Maria counts about three Italian-owned businesses from the old days, while Corydon is now home to at least eight Asian restaurants.

Sipping a cappucino down the street from Nucci's, the man credited with helping to turn this once deteriorating stretch of Corydon Avenue into a cultural and commercial hub in the late '80s -- with an annual street festival (Festa Italiana) that drew 50,000 people to the neighbourhood -- recalls how he and his buddies used to sit on a fence across from Bar Italia and imagine what could be.

"Italians are not people who live in their living rooms; they always congregated in the streets, in piazzas even today. We carried that tradition over here as well," says Joe Bova.

In retrospect, Corydon Avenue and the festas were the Italian community's attempt to give back, he says.

"I think we wanted to show our Canadian family and friends what was truly the best in us, what was special.

"And it isn't the big-ticket items that make it special. It's the $1.50 ice cream on the walk down the street with your children."

Little Italy ultimately became a victim of petty politics, Bova says -- and of its own success.

"This wasn't a place to make money; it was a place to show how we can have live a better life without blowing the budget. Of course, once Corydon became extremely successful, that was lost."

Bova concedes the changing face of Winnipeg's Little Italy is also largely a result of the "natural evolution" of an ethnic population that has integrated, inter-married and become, well, Canadian.

"The Italians who came here and worked on the railway or in the garment industry, their children became doctors and lawyers and engineers, so they're no longer interested in the mom-and-pop stores that made Little Italy what it was, says Bova, who married a non-Italian and has two sons in their 30s.

"I did my part. I don't sit and dream about festas in Italy anymore," he says.

"As for my children, I don't know if they want to sit on that fence and dream of something they don't know."

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

Sources: Stanislao Carbone, The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold, Manitoba Italian Heritage Committee, 1993

Stanislao Carbone, Italians in Winnipeg: An Illustrated History, University of Manitoba Press, 1998

The Canadian Encyclopedia

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 0

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