If it’s June in Vancouver, it’s time to break out the green, white, and red.
For many years at this time, Commercial Drive has come alive during the neighbourhood’s annual Italian Day street party—and what a time it’ll be again this year, with an expected 300,000 guests arriving on June 10.
With all the celebration, however, it’s easy to forget that the story of Italian immigration to Vancouver is one that saw much hardship along with the joy.
Following Italy’s unification in 1871, the southern part of the country was impoverished and overpopulated. With little opportunity to better themselves, the resulting diaspora saw almost nine million Italians depart for the Americas in search of pane e lavoro, or “bread and work”.
Scores of these southern Italians found their way to British Columbia in the 1880s, lured by railroad, mining, and forestry work.
“The railroad brought a lot of jobs for immigrants,” says author Ray Culos, a local historian and an expert on Italian immigration. “Italians came here looking for a better opportunity to rear their children and find happiness for themselves. When they were successful, they’d put out the call to others back home, and then those people would come over too.”
By 1900, there were about a thousand Italians in Vancouver, with that number growing to about 4,500 by 1940. During this time, a close-knit enclave formed in Strathcona.
“Sacred Heart, on the corner of Keefer and Campbell, was an Italian-language parish, and it became the dominant cultural centre of its time,” recalls Culos, who attended the church’s elementary school. “You’d see a thousand people there for Mass on a Sunday.”
Of course, the Second World War—in which fascist Italy was part of the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo Axis—changed everything. During this time, Canada declared all Italian nationals, as well as those naturalized after 1922, to be enemy aliens. Locally, this would affect about 40 percent of Italians.
To make matters worse, many who had signed a loyalty oath—often unwittingly—pushed by the local Italian consul found themselves in deeper trouble.
“My dad read it,” Culos recalls, “and it said that the person signing it would support the fascist cause, if necessary, with blood. And my dad said, ‘But we’re Canadian!’ and refused to sign.”
Under the War Measures Act, 44 Vancouver Italians, including many who signed the oath, were interned, on average, for 15-and-a-half months in camps in Kananaskis, Alberta, and Petawawa, Ontario, along with about 600 others across the country.
The allegiance of most local Italians, though, lay firmly with Canada. During this time, Culos’s father, Marino, along with a rising young lawyer, Angelo Branca, founded an antifascist group that asked members to reaffirm their loyalty to Canada and the king.
Branca—an amateur middleweight boxing champion in 1934—would go on to have a storied career as a lawyer and prosecutor and would eventually be appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court and later to the B.C. Court of Appeal.
“Branca was well loved in the community,” Culos says. “He was the first Canadian of Italian origin in the city to become a defence lawyer.”
After the war, the community’s population grew quickly—this time with immigration from northern Italy—and began to shift from Strathcona toward Commercial Drive. And although they all came from the same country, Culos notes, local Italians didn’t always share a common interest.
“People spoke different dialects, their values were different, they looked different, they didn’t always mix well. In fact, I used to tell people I was from a mixed marriage because my father and immediate family came from the area north of Venice and my mother’s family came from a small town between Rome and Naples.”
Culos says that last part with a laugh, but regional differences are an important part of the Italian identity. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, there were 35 Italian social organizations in Vancouver, each representing the interests of different regions and towns.
Once again, Branca provided a calming influence. Creating the Confratellanza Italo-Canadese, he provided an umbrella organization for everyone of Italian descent. From there, a new wave of Italian immigrants established the Italian Cultural Centre in 1977, which serves today as the cultural hub of a united community.
“Things were changing by the ’60s,” Culos says. “It wasn’t just north and south; it was about being Italian.”
With a community that now numbers almost 75,000 and stretches all the way into Coquitlam, Culos is very satisfied to see that Lower Mainlanders of Italian descent have finally reached true assimilation, with many Italian names—like Bosa, Aquilini, Bucci, De Cotiis, Capozzi, De Genova, Terrana, and Gaglardi—involved in the high-powered worlds of business and politics.
“We’ve assimilated in almost every way except our surnames,” he says, “and I’m happy to carry on the traditions, but my main focus is to honour the immigrants who made it possible for the next generations. They came and worked at anything—now we have accountants, journalists, lawyers, and doctors, just like any other ethnic group who had to establish themselves and grow with Canada.”