Italians Altered City's Fabric

Winnipeg Free Press, August 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Italians Altered City's Fabric


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.

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