From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History

By Caterina Edwards
Cover image of the book shows a black and white photo of a group of people and a dog

by Adriana A. Davies, Guernica Press, 2021/$34.95/416 pp.

Italians first came to Alberta in the 1880s; sojourners who followed the promise of work. At that time, Canada judged Italians as unsuitable for settlement and classified them as “non-preferred immigrants.” But the building of the railroads demanded tens of thousands of workers, and the Railway Association petitioned that southern Europeans be recruited to do “the type of work Canadians did not like.” Italians were cheap labour, considered useful but untrustworthy; “dirty dagos,” strangers whose neighbourhoods were rife with “filth, disease and crime.”

From Sojourners to Citizens is the first comprehensive history of Italians in Alberta, from the early years of struggle, danger and discrimination, through the decades of hard work and determination to the present-day assimilation and success. Based on extensive research, Adriana Davies has written a useful and necessary reference book packed with facts, events, places and names, though surprisingly no index.

While the narrative arc is uplifting, the most interesting sections of the book are more ambiguous. The story of the execution of Emilio Picariello and Filumena Lassandro for the murder of an RCMP officer has inspired books, a museum exhibition and a successful opera, Filumena. Davies presents the case in all its complexity. In the west, Picariello was the first Italian entrepreneur: a hotelier, a grocer and a manager of several factories. He was also one of many bootleggers in the Fernie and Crowsnest Pass area, but the others were British or American. Two of his rivals—one an established businessman in Lethbridge—set up a sting with the Alberta Provincial Police in Coleman. Davies argues convincingly that Emilio and Filumena were innocent and that the prosecutors used the race card to convict them.

In May 2021 Prime Minister Trudeau formally apologized to Italian-Canadians for the designation of Italians as enemy aliens and their internment without charge during the Second World War. Italian businesses were vandalized or boycotted. The Italian-born were fired, even coal miners. Edmonton enacted a ban on speaking foreign languages in public. Innocent men were interned. Among those who did espouse Fascism, six had founded an Alberta Fascio (political group) in 1926. Even they were adamant they wouldn’t have acted against Canada, and there was no evidence of sabotage or spying.

Being named enemy aliens shamed Italian-Albertans. Many denied their ethnicity. They forgot their language and took on Anglo names. Adriana Davies counteracts that negativity with an opposing story of accomplishment and pride.

Caterina Edwards is the author of The Sicilian Wife.

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