In From Sojourners to Citizens: Alberta’s Italian History, author, researcher, and curator Adriana A. Davies crafts a detailed narrative about how an immigrant community impacted and was impacted by the formation of modern-day Alberta. This is an expertly-researched but inconsistently engaging book that takes the reader on a journey from the earliest of Italian sojourners to present-day efforts to commemorate this history and maintain a distinct Italian Canadian identity.
Drawing upon regional and local histories, as well as family histories, memoirs, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and interviews, Davies presents not only the successes and general upward mobility of Italians in Alberta, but also their tragedies and experiences of discrimination, internment, and unhappiness. At the same time, she traces broad strokes changes in social beliefs and practices, such as the insistence on intracommunal marriage and the importance of girls’ education. Davies’ book is uniquely significant in that it records a history that has been largely overlooked both nationally and even provincially. While Ontario’s—or perhaps more specifically Toronto’s—Italian history has received a fair amount of scholarly attention over the decades, it has been left to a few dedicated individuals, with Davies among the most prominent, to document Alberta’s Italian history, a history that, with the passage of time, is rapidly becoming lost to living memory, as is the case for the history of many immigrant groups.
The book is structured around different eras of Italian Albertan history, from railway development, coal mining, agriculture, and entrepreneurial activity in the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century, to Fascism and internment during World War II, the massive wave of post-war immigration, the experiences of child immigrants and their upbringing in Canada, the creation of social organizations, and contemporary conversations around cultural identity. Throughout the ten chapters, Davies offers important insights into the history of immigration: although the focus is on Italians, discussions of immigration and multiculturalism policies lend themselves to conversations about immigration today, allowing the reader to draw commonalities with other immigrant groups. Other highlights include the section on “Italian Cowboys”—adventurers who deviated from the norm of the poor immigrant labouring on the railways and in mines—as well as the section on “strong women” (Davies’ term) that offers portraits of hardworking women who “achieved things in Canada that they could not have dream of in Italy.” (266) Also, as an Italian Canadian myself, I was excited to see that so many immigrants from my own family’s region—Friuli—made their mark on Alberta.
Perhaps the central weakness of this book is its “case studies” format: the bulk of each chapter consists of portraits of different individuals and families, some of which are more noteworthy and interesting than others. At their best, the case studies act as a mosaic of the “resourcefulness and resilience that was typical of most immigrant families.” (86) At their worst, the pattern of details—birth, immigration, marriage, children, work, death—becomes repetitive and difficult to parse. Further, much of the author’s own commentary is located at the beginning and ending of each chapter, which sometimes leaves the reader wandering through case studies without enough context to appreciate them. More consistent sign-posting and authorial intervention would’ve helped to direct the reader through all of the many details. Also, I felt there was a dearth of information when it came to the feelings and impressions that people had about their lives, though for the earlier chapters this is understandable, as the source material for this type of information either doesn’t exist or, as is the case for the chapter on WWII internment, documents were destroyed and most people wanted to move on from such a painful past. Thankfully some chapters do offer more detail, and, despite the government’s destruction of important documents, the chapter on internment is the most engaging and focused in the book.
It should be noted that From Sojourners to Citizens is not a general interest book, and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone looking for an introduction to Italian Canadian history. That’s not what this book is meant to be. Rather, it is, for the most part, a detailed record of the lives of individual Italians who laboured and settled in Alberta. It is like the culmination of many family history projects and specialized museum exhibits, brought together with some interesting historical analysis. With its footnotes and twelve-page bibliography, this book will be essential to anyone doing research on Italian Canadian or Albertan history, whether for academic scholarship or to learn more about their personal family histories. Creative writers interested in historical fiction would also find value here: for example, the life of George Pocaterra, the Romantic cowboy, is primed for fictionalization.
After finishing From Sojourners to Citizens, I was left with a strong impression of the century-long effort of Italian immigrants to not only make their mark on Alberta but to memorialize their work. Because Davies has been an integral part of this work herself, she is uniquely able to present it to the reader with both extreme care and expertise. Although it has its flaws, this book stands as an important memorial to all of those Italians who came to this country seeking better lives for themselves and their descendants. And as one of those descendants, I am grateful to those like Davies who are doing the important work of commemorating this history.
From Sojourners to Citizens
by Adriana A. Davies
Guernica Editions, Essential Essays series, 2021, 416 p.p., $34.95
Erin Della Mattia is a writer from Brampton, Ontario. She recently completed a Certificate in Publishing at Ryerson University, and she is currently working to establish her own freelance editing business.