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Thursday, March 08, 2012

There are no Candidos named in Lynne Bowen's historical tribute to the first generations of Italians who helped build Canada. But they are there all the same. In the smelters of Trail, in the dry grasslands of Kamloops, in the burgeoning days of early Vancouver... Whoever Gives Us Bread traces the trails of Italian Canadians and in doing so,  fills in the sketches we have of part of my family's early history in Canada.

"Among the Italians who were offending the sensibilites of middle-class Vancouverites," writes Bowen, "were men from Friuli, a region that had exported over fifty thousand of its people in that one year of 1913." My great grandfather, around about that time, was one of them. Leaving the slow starvation of a country that couldn't afford to feed them, Canada offered opportunity for those willing to get their hands, and their lungs, dirty.

My great grandfather made his first stop in Trail, to work in the smelter. As my father says: "But he didn't like that, he was a horseman, he wanted to be outdoors." He moved on to Kamloops, found work as a city labourman, saved up and brought his wife and children to Canada as soon as he could pay their passage. Although he escaped the debilitating effects of lead absorption common to smelter workers, his life ended tragically, with his abdomen fatally punctured when he fell from his horse onto a fencepost. He left behind seven children all of whom were living examples of the generation raised, as Bowen observes of others in her book, to appreciate their heritage, but also to be "whole heartedly Canadian."

Bowen's clear look back affirms one thing we've always known in our family: no one gave Italians like my great grandfather their bread in Canada. They earned it. Every bite.

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