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When Coal Was King
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Ethnocultural Communities

Antonio ("Tony") Pavan was born in 1896 in Breda Di Piave, Treviso, northern Italy and came to Lethbridge in 1914 where he worked as a boiler washer at the No. 3 Mine. In 1919, he married Isabella Tokar born in 1896 in Komena, Bucovina. The couple moved to Wigan where they operated a small store. In 1920, they built a general store in the Coalhurst Main Street. T. Pavan & Co. opened "minerís hours"ó9 to 6 every day except 9 to 1 on Wednesdays and 9 to 9 on Saturdays. They also had a small farm at which they operated an abattoir and Mr. Pavan did his own slaughtering and butchering. He was a councilor the Village of Coalhurst and a founding member of the Italian Society. After retiring, they moved to Lethbridge. The mining regions from the Elk Valley in the south-eastern corner of British Columbia through the Crows Nest Pass to the Drumheller Valley in Alberta are dotted with small communities established by people who arrived in different waves of immigration from Europe beginning in the last decades of the 19th century. 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.

Many worked in the mines; others worked on the railways or in sawmills; some cut timber, made roads and established businesses. Cycles of boom and bust have tested the resilience of residents in the region as a result of the ups-and-downs of industrial production associated with market demand. The coming in of Leduc No. 1 in 1947 signaled the death knell of coal mining as it had been practised for almost a century as oil and gas became the fossil fuels of choice. Mining camps and entire communities disappeared. Some communities, such as Michel-Natal, Morrissey and Coal Creek, were relocated in response to shifting demands of industry and the desire of the government of British Columbia to emphasize tourism and erase the mining past, which was no longer productive. Other populations fluctuated in response to War and immigration policy.

In response to the strikes that happened in coal mining communities in 1919 in sympathy with the Winnipeg General Strike, a royal commission study of the coal industry in Alberta was undertaken and noted the following makeup of the labour force in the Crows Nest Pass:

  • 90 percent of the workers in the Pass were immigrants

  • 34 percent were British

  • 23 percent were Slovak

  • 14.5 percent were Italian

  • 7 percent were French and Belgian

  • 2 percent were Russian

  • 8.5 percent were "other European"

  • 1 percent were American 1

These figures are likely representative for other coal mining regions of both Alberta and British Columbia.

The Fernie Lodge was historically the most important being the vehicle by which local Italian miners separated themselves from their American counterpart and established their own model of a fraternal society. This photography shows a mature Italian community proud of its culture and traditions. Both men and women wear their sashes and the float features the principessa [princess].While some ethnocultural histories have been undertaken, there is much work left to be done. Alberta's Italian community has been the focus of oral history and community mapping projects. In the early 1970s and 1980s, oral history projects were undertaken in Edmonton by the Dante Alighieri Society and the Italians Settle in Edmonton Society. Dr. Adriana Albi Davies was involved in the second set of oral histories and as Executive Director of the Heritage Community Foundation undertook development of the Celebrating Alberta's Italian Community website.

Click to Watch
Dr. Adriana Albi Davies Interviewed on Global Television

The Festa Italiana Committee was established in Fernie, British Columbia, to create an exhibit to complement the Da Vinci Exhibit which visited British Columbia and raised interest in the heritage of Italian-Canadians. As a result of this project, in 1998, the Fernie and District Historical Society undertook the "Elk Valley Italian Oral History Project." This project sought to commemorate the experiences and contributions of Italians in the Elk Valley.

The "People of the Mines" section of the When Coal Was King website also draws on the local histories developed by many Alberta communities as anniversary projects for the province's 75th in 1980. These include: Our Treasured Heritage: A History of Coalhurst and District, Crowsnest and Its People, The Hills of Home: Drumheller Valley, The Valley of the Dinosaurs: Its Families and Coal Mines and The History of Diamond City and Commerce.

The Year of the Coal Miner Consortium wishes to thank Dr. Adriana Albi Davies, the Heritage Community Foundation, the Festa Italiana Committee and the Fernie and District Historical Society for permission to reprint text, images and audio materials.

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