Unemployment at home forced thousands of Italian men to cross oceans and continents for a way to support their families.
They came to British Columbia and took what work they could get – often that meant in the mines across the lines of striking workers.
“The men just came temporarily,” said Lynne Bowen, author of a new book on the Italian community in B.C. “Because their families were in Italy, they had nothing to lose being strikebreakers.”
Whoever Gives Us Bread is Bowen’s sixth book on B.C. history, her previous titles focusing on coal mining, Robert Dunsmuir and settlers.
While Bowen doesn’t shy away from the difficult aspects of history, she also presents the joyous side of the Italian community, which valued family, good food and friends.
“You shouldn’t try and clean up history,” said Bowen, who is a member of Nanaimo’s Italian lodge. “We all have our weaker points.”
Italian life often surrounded businesses like grocery stores and Bowen met friendly and accepting people during her journeys.
Gatherings are often loud and joyous, with competitions in homemade wine and sausages.
The decision to focus on Italians in B.C. was sparked by a trip to Italy with her husband in the 1990s.
“It was really last minute – [our friends] had an extra bedroom in their villa,” Bowen said. “We fell completely in love with the place.
“Everyone was so nice to us.”
A letter Bowen came across while writing a previous book about the role of Italians as strikebreakers in the early 20th century also sparked an urge to find out why the Italian community had this reputation, which led to interviews and research across the province.
Bowen interviewed leading members of Italian communities across B.C., including Nanaimo, Trail and Fernie. In some cases, elders in the community were previously interviewed with the transcripts readily available.
“I ended up with a lot of information,” Bowen said.
While many members of the communities were happy to share their stories, Bowen found people were quite closed-mouth when it came to shameful incidents, such as support for Mussolini, the Italian dictator during the Second World War, with some declining to be part of the book when asked.
“Mostly, they tried to present a very positive image of themselves,” Bowen said.
Part of the reason for that is the shabby treatment Italians endured in Canada, often suffering racism, segregation and name-calling.
The wave of emigration occurred soon after the principalities and city states of Italy united and the new government failed to address issues.
Land had to be divided among remaining sons, which combined with a high birth rate, meant farms were divided into smaller and smaller parcels.
“Pretty soon no one among the peasantry owned enough land to support themselves,” Bowen said. “Italy has more emigrants per capita than any other country in the world.”
Due to a devastating car accident earlier this year, Bowen is still recovering from surgery to repair broken legs, pelvis, wrist and sternum. Her book launch will take place in September at the Nanaimo Museum.
Whoever Gives Us Bread is available at local bookstores and the museum.
For more information, please visit www.lynnebowen.ca.