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Nationalism from the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia

By Patricia K. Wood

November 4, 2013

Review By Gabriele Scardellato

According to Patricia Wood, ethnic studies in Canada – or at least the study of Italian immigrants and their descendants – is at best a marginal or fringe activity in the Canadian academy. She complains, with justification, about the “marginalization that studies of groups other than British and French continue to receive” (xv). It might also be argued, however, that the situation Wood describes is not a continuation but a return to a previous status quo. In short, the heyday of ethnic studies that can be seen as the result of proselytizing by the likes of Robert F. Harney and Howard Palmer (both sadly deceased well before their time), Jean Burnet, Wsevold Isajiw, Raymond Breton, Harold Troper, Morton Weinfeld, and others was short-lived. One could argue that the research terrain has shifted (perhaps since the early 1990s), as is suggested by the demise of direct funding support at the federal government level; the emer gence of new agencies, in particular the socalled Metropolis Programme and the creation of its Centre(s) of Excellence for Research in Immigration; the virtual disappearance of the terms “multicultural” or “multiculturalism” from the bureaucratic (and, by extension, the academic) lexicon; the rather strict insistence that whatever funding remains available be awarded for research geared to addressing policy issues that are thought to derive from contemporary immigration and migration; and so forth.

Wood, trained as a historian, is a York University geographer who has published a number of articles dealing with ethnicity, nationalism, gender, and heritage. Her study Nationalism from the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia is an ambitious and welcome undertaking, the first attempt to provide an overview of the settlement of Italians in western Canada, where their numbers are exceeded only by their settlements in Ontario and Quebec. Her monograph is a relatively straightforward history of an “Italian” presence in the country’s westernmost provinces and is based on a variety of secondary sources enhanced by primary materials, especially oral histories (thirty-four of which were recorded by the author herself), documents from provincial and other archival collections, gleanings from local newspapers, and, somewhat unusually, fictional literature that she deploys in an effort to explore “Italian immigrants’ mentalité” (15).

Wood’s book is divided into seven chapters, the first of which is a general overview of the study of Italians in Canada in which she comments unfavourably, as noted, on the marginality of ethnic studies and sets out her own concerns. She discusses, for example, her dissatisfaction with the use of “botanical metaphors” like “uprooted” and “transplanted,” and her preference for the term “relocation” in the study of migration and immigration, and she also presents her interest in theories of identity and the “socio-intellectual negotiation of identity.” Chapter 2 turns to a history of Italian settlement in Alberta and British Columbia from the late nineteenth century – beginning with Italians as miners in British Columbia – to the First World War. In Chapter 3, Wood continues the historical narrative through the interwar period, an era that she describes as nativist and racist, and she closes the chapter with a discussion of the internment of “several hundred Italian Canadians,” including twenty who were actually Canadian born (52). In Chapter 4, Wood considers various aspects of post–Second World War immigration to and settlement in western Canada and argues that newly arrived Italians of this era did not develop localized “pan-Italian identities” but, rather, pan-Italian identities based on their provincial and even “western” residence in Canada. This discussion of identity formation is then expanded in the last three chapters of her study, which deal with the position of Italian Canadians in the wider context of regional identity formation, the post–Second World War history of Canadian nationalism, and debates about Canadian identity.

In Chapter 5, Wood discusses the welcome accorded to Italian immigrants in western Canada after the war and presents a fairly “traditional” political science reading of the creation of the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission and the multicultural policy that was part of its outcome. In her second-to-last chapter, Wood is concerned with the emergence of an Italian-Canadian identity in British Columbia and Alberta in the post– Second World War period – particularly in the 1960s and 1970s – and how this was “negotiated” within the context of Anglo-Canadian neonationalism. In the last chapter of this study, she is concerned primarily to present the effects of “relocation” (across space and over time) on the formation of an Italian-Canadian identity in British Columbia and Alberta. Finally, in a three-page conclusion, Wood attempts to gather the various strands that she has followed through her text, insisting that the study of Canadian nationalism “must include the presence of other voices [beyond the French and British] in the identity debate” because she has shown in her study that “Italian immigrants’ relationship to Canada was historically and spatially produced in a way that challenges previous conceptions of national identity and citizenship” (134).

Despite its general value and im portance as the first undertaking of its kind, Wood’s study presents difficulties. The most common of these derives from the nature of the sources consulted and the observations and conclusions the author makes from them. Second, but not unrelated, assertions are made in the text for which little if any supporting evidence is cited. In her opening remarks about the “mentalité of migration,” for example, Wood presents migrating or sojourning Italian workers as potential immigrants whose responsibility was to find work (income) wherever possible, and if “it was better where they went, the family followed as soon as it was financially possible. If it was not, the workers continued to return home periodically, but could be away for years at a time” (4). This is an interesting and unconventional reading of the mentalité of Italian sojourners who are almost always depicted as seasonal labourers, migrants whose goal was to earn an income to fulfill specific economic needs (pay off debt, provide a dowry, purchase a piece of land, and so forth) before returning to their paese (village or area of origin rather than “region of Italy” as translated by Wood). The lack of clarity here in distinguishing between migrant and immigrant is compounded later in her text (19) when Wood discusses the misfortunes of six “immigrant miners” who were killed in 1884 in an explosion in one of the Vancouver Island coal mines. Her description of these unfortunates clearly states that they were all bachelors with no family in Canada. Why, then, are they described as “immigrant miners”? Indeed, what evidence allows us to conclude that they were potential immigrants? Do the hard-won earn ings in their possession at the time of their deaths suggest an intention to settle in Canada or a mistrust of the means available for remitting those earnings to the paese?

Similar concerns about generalizations are raised by Wood’s analysis of the reception accorded to immigrants to western Canada after the Second World War. As part of that discussion Wood observes that “Italian immigrants felt welcomed in Western Canada in the post-war [Second World War] period,” but this conclusion is based on a limited number of newspaper accounts and a limited number of inter views conducted by Wood herself. For example, the statement that “many [immigrants] arriving in Vancouver in the 1950s and ’60s encountered very little or no hostility. Some even went so far as to say that they found Canadians to be helpful, understanding, and very patient with their language and cultural difficulties” (84) appears to be derived from the author’s interviews with three informants, with no com ment on or assessment of how representative their experiences might have been. Further, in the paragraph immediately following this quotation, it is unclear why Italian immigrants would interpret the emergence of the University of British Columbia’s new Romance Languages department, which incorporated Italian, as a “positive, welcoming [sign] from the society beyond the Italian community” (84).

Throughout her study, Wood relies strongly on newspapers as indicators of group attitudes and sentiments (page 80, for example), but she uses these primary sources uncritically. In her discussion of the propensity for Italian-language newspapers – and Vancouver’s l’Eco d’Italia in particular – to ignore Dominion and Victoria Day celebrations (109), she does not mention that “the editors at l’Eco d’Italia [had] linked themselves with an Italian wire service in the early 1960s” (111), a fact that, as Wood herself notes, had a strong bearing on the newspaper’s content. Similarly, even though she is critical of using the voices of a group’s elite as if they were the views of the group in general (94), she does not reflect on the possible elitist perspective of editors and others whose voices are broadcast in newspapers. Also, her use of newspapers to study the group’s opinions and attitudes is complicated by the lack of any reflection on the potential role of other media, particularly television. Thus, her discussion about Italian-language press coverage of the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. (112) would be more convincing if it acknowledged the possibility that Canadians in general were as interested as were Italian Canadians but that their interest might have been satisfied through television coverage rather than through print media.

Wood often refers in her study to Italians and to the Italian language as if they were both monolithic or fixed entities. As is well known, however, there were (and continue to be) different “types” of Italians, the differences depending, in part, as Wood suggests, on their regions of origin. An equally strong component of that difference, particularly in the prewar period, might have been their spoken language. It is likely that this was not so-called “standard Italian” but, rather, one of its many regional variants. Clearly, Wood is well aware of these issues. She notes, for example, that Italian Canadians “were no more monolithic” in their Canadian identity “than in their Italian identity,” which was “factured [sic] by regional allegiances” (129). This fracturing – perhaps exacerbated by the potentially divisive role of language – needs to be better integrated into her analysis of community and identity formation (see also her reference to these issues on page 20). With closer attention to realities within an immigrant/ethnic group, one could present a more nuanced portrait of an ethnic neighbourhood than is provided, for example, in Chapter 6 (111).

In other instances there is a lack of convincing data to support assertions about observed trends. In her discussion of post –Second World War immigration and settlement, for example, Wood notes that Italian communities in small settlements in western Canada shrank as their members moved to larger urban centres, where populations grew as a consequence of both this internal migration and immigration. She cites the career of an Italian-Canadian who grew up and worked in Powell River and then moved to Vancouver when he retired in 1980. Are we to understand that Powell River’s (exurban) Italian- Canadian population shrank in the post–Second World War period? And, if so, when did this occur and how extensive was it? Were Powell River, Kitimat, Port Alberni, and other settlements all “stopping points along a route that ended, almost invariably, in the Vancouver area” (63), with Trail (in the BC interior) being the only exception? At least one example that illustrates the decline of these immigrant populations would give substance to Wood’s observations about population shifts from exurban to urban in the postwar period.

To these relatively substantive con cerns, one might add others that are relatively trivial but nonetheless irritating. For readers unfamiliar with the geography of British Columbia’s southern coast line, for example, the description of the location and isolation of Powell River, one of the province’s coastal settlements, is unclear. Throughout the pre–Second World War period, the distance between Powell River and Vancouver, according to Wood, “was measured by a dirt road” (62), but on the following page she reports that in the 1930s residents of Powell River were paying for an overnight steamship trip “to Vancouver for the day” (63). Similarly, and still in Powell River, what is a reader to make of the description of a career that culminated in “programming the machines” (62) before the programmer moved to his employer’s head office in Vancouver? Surely it would be useful to know that the employee had been responsible for programming the enormous papermaking machines used for manufacturing newsprint in the company’s paper mill. The study is also marred by a variety of typographical errors (e.g., “form” instead of “from”); misspellings, particularly of Italian names, terms, and institutions, including Fogolar Furlani for Fogolar Furlan, Società Columbo for Società Colombo, and so forth. There is also some confusion around the proper form of names or titles, as in National Congress of Italo- Canadians (69) rather than National Congress of Italian Canadians (95), as well as misinterpretations of Italian terminology. For example, the Italian term circolo, when used in the title of an organization, is better translated as “club” than as “circle” (67), the literal rendering.

As previously stated, and despite the caveats recorded above, Wood’s study of identity formation among Italians in Alberta and British Columbia is a welcome addition to our understanding of western-Canadian history. Above all, it is a reminder of the continued importance of ethnic studies in Canada, regardless of whether the perspective is that of history, geography, or sociology. As Wood suggests, the experience of immigrant and ethnic groups is a necessary counterpoint to the tendency to describe Canadian identity as emerging from an English- French contest rather than from the interplay of a variety of voices that have made, and will continue to make, Canada their home.