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Elk Valley's Italian Community

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Angelo and Betty Schianni.Fernie is located in the Elk Valley of south-east corner of British Columbia within the larger region of the East Kootenays. It intersects with the Crows Nest Pass which is the lowest and southern-most corridor across the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The region is dotted with small communities established by people who arrived in different waves of immigration from Europe. The spectrum of cultural backgrounds includes: Slavic-speaking people of Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak heritage; Italians; and Anglo-Europeans from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Eastern Canada and the US.

Through their labour, these immigrants established industries throughout the Crowsnest Pass. Many worked in the mines. Others worked on the railways or in sawmills, some some cut timber, made roads and established businesses. Cycles of boom and bust have tested the resilience of residents in the region. Some communities, such as Michel-Natal, Morrissey and Coal Creek have been relocated in response to shifting demands of industry. Other populations fluctuated in response to War and immigration policy.

According to Statistics Canada, BC has the highest population in the western provinces of people whose language and heritage are Italian. The Elk Valley has a significant Italian community. In Sparwood (previously Michel-Natal) many immigrated from the North of Italy. In Fernie, Italian residents are primarily from the southern region of Calabria, where, at various times, local conditions were difficult. There were three major waves of immigration from Italy to this region. The earliest arrived in the late 1800s; another influx occurred between 1920 and into the 1930s. The last major move of Italians into the Elk Valley occurred after World War II into the 1950s. Since this time, relatives and friends continue to arrive in smaller numbers.

This article is adapted from the Summary Report for the Elk Valley Italian Oral History Project prepared by Leslie Robertson (Unpublished Report: Fernie and District Historical Society, November, 1999). The Heritage Community Foundation and the Year of the Coal Miner Consortium would like to thank Leslie Robertson and the Fernie and District Historical Society for permission to reprint this material.

Listen:  Silvio Tona talks about his wine making (oral history excerpt).

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