Sons and Daughters begins with the story of Cosimo Figliomeni, who set out from Italy in search of a better life. In 1905, Cosimo left his wife and children in Siderno, Italy. He was 42 years old. Cosimo found that better life working on the CPR lines along the north shore of Lake Superior. Three years later his wife, four sons and daughter joined him in Canada and the family settled in the thriving rail town of Schreiber.
Italians have been coming to Canada for hundreds of years. The earliest Italian contact with Canada dates to 1497 when Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), an Italian navigator from Venice, explored and claimed the coast of Newfoundland for Britain. In 1524 another Italian, Giovanni da Verrazzano, explored part of Atlantic Canada for France. Italians served in the military of New France, and in return received land and settled in the late 17th century. Italians also served in mercenary regiments in the British army during the war of 1812. And afterward, some 200 or more of the Italian mercenaries were offered homesteads by the British government.
By the late 18th century, a small number of Italians, many in the hotel trade, resided in Montreal. In the mid 19th century, Italian craftsmen, artists, musicians and teachers, primarily from northern Italy, immigrated to Canada. In the 1860s, Italian street musicians such as hurdy-gurdy men and street singers were seen in Canada. Working as a journalist in 1897, Mackenzie King, the future prime minister of Canada, described the first street entertainer who lived in Toronto in the 1880s. This early Italian immigrant, King wrote, had worn out 5 street piano and earned an average of $15 a day in his first years in Toronto (2).
Beginning in the 1880s, rural emigrants from Italy began arriving in North America. The majority went to the United States, but approximately 60,000 came to Canada. Most of these immigrants were young men and they were usually given heavy and poor paying work. Many toiled in the coal mines at Sydney, Nova Scotia and others, like Cosimo Figliomeni, worked along the transcontinental railways(3).
The two largest waves of Italian immigrants to Canada occurred between 1900 and WWI and from 1950-1970. During the first period, almost 120,000 Italians entered Canada, although primarily from the United States. After WWII the widespread shortage of labour caused by a booming economy once again made Canada particularly receptive to Italian immigration. Almost 70% of Canada's postwar immigrants were Italians. Family "chain migration" from Italy became so popular that by 1958 Italy surpassed Britain as the main immigrant group. But new immigration policy would restrict the numbers of Italian arriving in Canada. In 1967, a "points system" was introduced, basing admissibility on universal criteria such as education. This new regulation restricted the sponsorship of relatives, so that Italian immigration dropped significantly. Similar restrictions had existed between the two major phases of Italian immigration, and with the same effect(4).
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