They Built Their Community BY HAND

Article excerpt

Industrious Italians rose from peasant roots and adapted to Canadian society by mastering L'art d'arrangiarsi (the art of getting by)

"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. …