A month of Italian stories

The Italian community gathers for a picnic on Bowen Island, shortly before the declaration of war in 1939. | Photo courtesy of Angela Clarke – Museum Director, Il Museo

They have undergone poverty, widespread discrimination, and even, in World War II, internment. These are Vancouver’s early Italian immigrants. Angela Clarke tells their story.

Italians had big families, and those that came were often the fifth or sixth son,” says Clarke, museum director and curator at Il Centro Italian Cultural Centre in Vancouver. “There was the Klondike gold rush and the railway. Posters promote[d] Canada as this land of opportunity, an idyllic place where [people] could make money.”

Canada did have opportunities, continues Clarke, but immigrants also faced prejudice. These early beginnings, as well as what followed, will be celebrated in the coming month of June, designated Italian Heritage Month by the City of Vancouver. Planned events include workshops, concerts, movies, and Italian Day on the Drive, a cultural street festival in Vancouver’s Little Italy.

Enemy aliens

Early Italian immigrants were relegated to the entertainment industry; they were street singers and players of a portable instrument known as a hurdy-gurdy, a type of violin equipped with a keyboard and hand crank. However, gradually, as their numbers increased, Italians took on other professions.

“There were restaurants, grocery stores,” says Clarke. “Construction has always been Italian. Tailoring, garment creation, lacemaking: among the women that was a significant occupation.”

A wooden plaque of the grounds at the Kananaskis internment camp made by an internee during World War II. 44 Italian men in Vancouver were interned at this time. | Photo courtesy of Angela Clarke – Museum Director, Il Museo

Despite the presence of Italians doing this important work, there was a good deal of discrimination against the immigrants.

“People were concerned [about] Italians moving into the neighbourhood,” says Clarke. “There was a notion that they were the poorest of the poor; they were uncouth. They weren’t even considered Canadian citizens. They were ‘lowly immigrants.’”

This prejudice came to a head in World War II, when 44 Italian men in Vancouver (600 in Canada overall) were interned.

“They were sent to Kananaskis,” says Clarke, speaking of the internment camps in B.C.’s interior. “Their homes were ransacked for fascist propaganda, which was never found.”

The men were all members of a fascio organization, one of many across Canada sponsored by Mussolini’s Italian government, but, as Clarke explains, this wasn’t unusual.

“Mussolini was considered a good guy [at first],” notes Clarke. “It wasn’t until [just] before World War II that there were challenges to Mussolini’s reputation. He was aligning himself with Hitler, a direction that many Canadians and indeed many Italians were not happy with.”

As well as the internments, the Italian community coped with other difficulties in these years, says Clarke. Many more Italian-Canadians were “enemy aliens,” which meant that every month they had to account to the RCMP for their activities.

“For many, this was a real affront,” says Clarke. “One woman, Nellie Cavell, had been secretary for the Italian Consulate in the 1930s, [then] funded by the Mussolini government. But she was very proudly Canadian. She would sign in and take all the back streets so people didn’t know what she was doing.”

A sophisticated place

Scars from the internment do remain in Clarke’s view, especially now with the 80th anniversary fast-approaching. Fortunately, though, the perception of Italian-Canadians has changed from this time.

“Post-war, there was [a] really strong Italian movie industry. There was an image of Italy as a sophisticated, cultural place, [a] sensuous experience of fashion and food. Italians [were] leaders of design and aesthetics,” says Clarke.

This idea of Italy still exists today, continues Clarke, with, in her words, “Italian culture [being] something that is appreciated universally.”

Today, the Italian community in Vancouver, rather than being set apart, has become integrated with other communities.

“To be Italian now does not mean that both your parents are Italian,” says Clarke. “You can be Italian and aboriginal, Italian and Muslim, Italian and Chinese.”

With the experience of prejudice behind Italian-Canadians, the Vancouver community is becoming more understanding of, as Clarke says, “non-traditional family life.”

“Being Italian is not necessarily being Catholic and going to church, being in a [heterosexual] marriage,” says Clarke. “This [is] accepted by this community and in fact welcomed.”

For more information, please visit www.italianculturalcentre.ca