- Photo courtesy of Italian Day Festival Society
On Sunday, June 10, “Little Italy” on Commercial Drive will spring to life in an extravaganza of food, music, dance, art, sport, and entertainment. It will be the third annual Italian Day Festival celebrating Italian heritage and culture.
“This is an opportunity,” Brunella Gaudio of the Italian Day Festival Society says, “to revive and remind people of the Italian heritage and culture in Vancouver, and to recognize the accomplishments of the new generation of Italian-Canadians.”
In Vancouver, one often associates anything Italian with the neighborhoods on Commercial Drive or Hastings Street in North Burnaby. Ray Culos, an active member of the Italian-Canadian community, says that many Italian railway workers began settling in Vancouver as railway works moved westward from Ontario in the 1880s. The first Italians did not settle on today’s Commercial Drive, but in the nearby neighbourhood of Strathcona.
“The area comprised of Main Street on the west side and Clark Drive on the east,” says Culos. “The boundary went as far as Hastings Street on the north side and Prior and Atlantic streets on the south. Economics and the influx of additional immigrants from Italy circa 1950 – 1965 extended the Italian physical enclave to include Commercial Drive and later Victoria and Nanaimo and south to Broadway.”
Similar to many immigrants in Vancouver today, the early Italians sponsored many of their relatives and friends to immigrate to Canada. This helped establish the Italian community on Commercial Drive.
“For the most part these early immigrants stayed with their sponsors until they could afford to buy their own homes – often just a few blocks away,” says Culos. “They stayed in the area for decades because within Little Italy were Italian-operated grocery stores, bakeries, clubs, societies and the Catholic Church parishes.”
Following the two world wars, there were waves of Italian immigrants coming to Vancouver. Culos notes that it was remarkable that the Italian community co-existed well with the other ethnic communities nearby.
“The area comprised of Italians, Jews, Ukrainians, and Yugoslavs,” he says. “Plus a few black families as well as Japanese and Chinese … We practiced ‘multiculturalism’ before the phrase was coined by the federal government.”
The Italian-Canadian Community today
However, in 1967, when the Canada Immigration Act became more restrictive, things started to change. It made it harder for most Italian immigrants, who were mostly unskilled labourers, to come to Canada. The number of Italian immigrants declined and virtually stagnated in the 1980s.
“With no serious influx of Italians forthcoming the once normal factors had been affected such as the church, retailers, real estate and fraternal societies,” says Culos. “Commercial Drive no longer represents high-end Italian real estate.”
Brunella Gaudio suggested that it is the passing away of the older and larger Italian-Canadian generations that triggered the new generations of Italian-Canadians to revive their Italian heritage and culture in Vancouver.
Italian history and culture lives on in festivals like these, as well as being represented by notable Italian-Canadians like Frank Iacobucci (former Supreme Court Justice), Luigi Aquilini (Canucks and real estate owner), Joe Trasolini (politician), Tony Parsons (TV host), Lui Passaglia (former BC Lions player), and Michael Bublé (singer).
For more information on the Italian Day Festival and Commercial Drive, please visit italianday.ca