Adriana A. Davies, From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History. Guernica Editions, 2021

Historian Adriana A. Davies’ book From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History is a unique and comprehensive history that documents the presence of Italians in Alberta in every era of immigration from the 1880s to the present. Most of the Italian-Canadian immigration history to date has been focused on Ontario or Quebec because of the size of the Italian communities in these provinces.

Sojourners features Individual and community stories that Davies has drawn from a range of primary and secondary sources including oral histories, family and community histories, newspapers accounts and personal interviews. The author is the recipient of the Inaugural Heritage Writers Reserve Award given by the Edmonton Heritage Council in 2020.

The book is a valuable addition to existing literature on Western Canadian history and ethnocultural history and deals with the painful subject of enemy alien designation and internment during the Second World War. In addition, because of the author’s long involvement in the area of multicultural policy, new thinking is brought to bear on the impact of such policies on the process of assimilation and belonging. The book is timely because of its demonstration of an immigrant community’s movement from marginalization to the mainstream. Finally, the examination of Italian organizations spanning a period of over 100 years provides insight into their function in enabling the community to become rooted. 

Davies notes: “My aim in writing Alberta’s Italian History: From Sojourners to Citizens has been to tell the stories of my own ethnocultural community in the context of the settlement and development of Alberta in the twentieth century. I have done this using both thematic and chronological approaches. The community’s contributions in the building of railways, coal mining, agriculture and ranching, industry, culture and civic life are discussed as part of the narrative of province building. At the end of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries, Italians were on the lowest rung of desirability with respect to official immigration policy.”

The majority of immigration from Italy, in the early part of the 20th century, was to small communities where railways were being built and resources exploited, thus early chapters focus on the resource hinterlands of the province. The period of agricultural colonies and homesteading focuses on rural communities while, the second major wave of Italian immigration, which occurred post-1949, was to cities, primarily Edmonton and Calgary. Italians are seen as part of the urbanization of Alberta and post-war industrial development. Finally, various government policies relating to immigration, enemy alien designation and internment, and, in the latter half of the 20th century on multicultarism, have been examined with respect to their impact on the Italian community. The final chapter also explores “cultural politics” and notions of belonging.

In an age in which Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees fundamental rights and immigrants, whether economic migrants or refugees, are welcomed, it is difficult to imagine what it was like at the beginning of the twentieth century. While the Liberal government of Sir Wilfred Laurier saw the importance of immigration to populate the Northwest Territories, not everyone was welcomed. Preference was given to people of British origin, Americans and Northern Europeans. Peoples of southern and eastern Europe, and Asia, were deemed less desirable labourers entering the country, particularly Italian and Chinese railway workers from the US. 

This is the context for Italian immigration in the early years of the twentieth century. While restrictive, Canadian policy did not impede immigration, between 1901 and 1911 Alberta’s population grew more than fivefold, from 73,022 to 374,295. The number of Italians in the province for select years was as follows: 1901, 109; 1911, 2,150; 1921, 4,028. From the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, immigration from Italy was restricted comprising mainly family reunification and agricultural labour. From 1949 to the early 1970s was the period of significant immigration from Italy. There were also changes to immigration creating a level playing field for all ethnicities. In addition, multiculturalism policies (federal and provincial) in the 1970s enabled immigrant communities to share their cultures and languages with the Canadian mainstream. This also was a period of integration and assimilation of Italian immigrants. People of Italian ancestry ceased to be marginalized and moved beyond labouring work and trades into the professions and big business.

On Thursday, May 6 at 6:30 pm, the Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum and the Edmonton Heritage Council are jointly hosting a presentation of the book. Adriana Davis will read from her work and there will be a Q & A session.

This is the link for the public event listing with tickets available for $5: