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Whoever Gives us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia

By Lynne Bowen

Review By Stephen Fielding

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 173 Spring 2012  | p. 160-62

More than twenty years ago, Gabriele Scardellato lamented the dearth of attention to Italian Canadians living “beyond the frozen wastes” (Scardellato 1989). There have been modest advances since that time, including Patricia K. Wood’s Nationalism From the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia (2002), the local histories of Raymond Culos, and a couple of M.A. theses (mine included). Whoever Gives us Bread does much to fill this gap, introducing the general and academic reader alike to the colourful and precarious experiences of Italian residents who lived when the province was young. 

Bowen takes us in to the everyday lives of Italian arrivals and the dear ones they left behind in Italy. Her book reads like a series of vignettes, tied together thematically into a general trajectory that begins in the 1850s and concludes a century later. The earliest accounts are particularly intriguing, describing in lively prose the unpredictable nature of work in the nascent province, where lives and profits could improve or deteriorate in short course. We meet Carlo Bossi, the miner-cum-Victoria hotelier who died a millionaire in 1895; Felice Valle, a mule train packer found dead on a mountain trail to Barkerville; Tobia Castellarin, who sent back remittances to his family for five years only to return and discover that his brother had squandered the money; or the even less fortunate six Italian men who perished in the Protection Island mining disaster. Despite the dangers, Italians kept coming to British Columbia—some to stay, but more looking for temporary employment in the frontier towns, mines, and railway gangs to earn enough to improve their situation back in Italy.

Hers is history for a general audience, but there is much embedded in these stories to interest the historian of migration or ethnicity. Woven into the narrative are the familiar debates of transnational migrant networks, class tensions, gender relations in transnational families, the position of “white ethnics” in late 19th century racial discourse, social-economic and diplomatic conditions in Canada and Italy, policy restrictions and their subterfuge, and ethnic relations in resource towns. Unlike other accounts of Italians during this period by John Zucchi or Patricia K. Wood, however, questions of Italian ethnicity and nationalism are left out. But to be fair, such analysis would have demanded more space than the book allowed.

Bowen’s enthusiasm for her subjects is unmistakable and of great benefit to the reader. Her prose is supported by eighteen years of travel and research that took her the length of the Italian peninsula to the agrotowns that her subjects departed, the cities and outposts of British Columbia where they worked and settled, and the various archives that documented their presence. She uncovers valuable information from a staggering number of sources, including monographs, obscure or out-of-print books, genealogical records, commemorative booklets, payroll and inventory lists, and oral testimonies both old and recent. One particularly useful source is tombstones, the layout of which she links to the level of ethnic integration in mining towns from one period to the next (101).

On a more critical note, the story-telling format struggles when a chapter’s contents are loosely festooned into a common theme. In one chapter, accounts of stereotyping cover a span of two or three generations (73 and 127), and the final stanza reads like a patchwork of topics ranging from superstitions, gender issues, tensions between early and later Italian arrivals, and the social and economic difference between contemporary Italy and that before the 1970s. A second area of concern is Bowen’s handling of the discrimination faced by Italian migrants and their kin. Her effort to combat accusations of Italians as ‘violent, impulsive stiletto-wielders’ runs into trouble when the reader is given a large number of stories that fit this description. In fairness, this discrepancy is likely the product of limited records and past newspapers preferring sensational stories. Still, Bowen could more forcefully demonstrate the extent to which her subjects were pariahs (55 and 146) of mainstream scrutiny, perhaps by comparing the number of criminal charges and incarcerations among Italians to those of other groups. Lastly, I suggest a different title for the book. Whoever Gives us Bread comes from an interview with an anonymous subject in another book, rather than an Italian migrant to British Columbia. It implies, unintentionally, that Italian arrivals were looking for handouts, when, as Bowen herself carefully shows, they worked hard to sustain themselves and their families, both in Canada and Italy.

These comments aside, Whoever Gives us Bread is a well-sourced, timely, and highly readable book. It colours the familiar and lesser-travelled places of British Columbia with the imprint of Italian experiences.  The backwoods, mountain passes, city streets, mine shafts, railway lines and neighbourhoods of this province tell more Italian stories than we ever imagined. Thanks to Lynne Bowen, we know much more about the Italians who sojourned or settled ‘beyond the frozen wastes.’

Lynne Brown
Whoever Gives us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia
Vancouver: D&M Publishers, 2011  hc. $32.95 

Works Cited

Culos, Raymond. Vancouver’s Society of Italians, 3 Vols. Madeira Park, BC: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd., 1998-2006.

Fielding, Stephen A. “Entertaining Ethnicity: Identity, Place, and the Italian Festival in Vancouver and Trail, British Columbia, 1945-2001.” Master’s Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 2007.

Quilici, Laura. “’I was a Strong Lady’: Italian Housewives with Boarders in Vancouver, 1947-1961.” Master’s Thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1995.

Scardellato, Gabriele P. “Beyond the Frozen Wastes: Italian Sojourners and Settlers in British Columbia.” In Arrangiarsi: The Italian Immigration Experience in Canada, eds. Roberto Perin and Franc Sturino, 135-162. Montreal: Guernica, 1989.

Wood, Patricia K. Nationalism from the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002.

Zucchi, John E. Italians in Toronto: Development of National Identity, 1875-1935. Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.