In 1985 a small group began to research the Italian-Canadian presence in the area. Until that time very little had been recorded. Since I has already begun some work in this area I became immersed in coordinating this community project. With the help of other individuals we put together a pictorial exhibit and published a book on our findings. This began for me a life-long involvement in this research. Today it has evolved into a National project called the Italian-Canadian Archives Project (ICAP) www.icap.ca. Locally, this has led more ongoing research and creating a local virtual archive on the Italian-Canadian presence in Sarnia-Lambton.
Thanks to the generosity of the Italo-Canadian Cultural Club, and the talent and interest of Michael Iannozzi, a graduate student in Linguistics at Western. Over the last two months this work has begun in earnest.
The Italian presence in Sarnia-Lambton can be traced to around 1870. A Count Ribighini arrived in Petrolia in a quest for “black gold”. He is also the reason the famous big band leader, Guy Lombardo and his family (tailors who emigrated from Aolian Islands of Sicily) found themselves in London, Ontario. This requires another article in of itself.
Found in “The Observer” microfilm article of 1884 is a description of the presence of “a gang of wandering Italian gypsies”. These street musicians and travelling entertainers of many types were part of the earliest Italian migration to Canada and Ontario after the era of explorers, missionaries and soldiers of fortune. According to scholar, Dr. Gabriele Scardellato, probably a more accurate description of Sarnia’s “Italian gypsies” is that they were a component of a migratory work force with counterparts in the construction sites of work camps of the CPR in the Fraser Canyon.
After the first world war from the 1920’s the presence of some ten Italian families arrived to Sarnia. Holmes Foundry was recruiting experienced foundry molders, and placed newspaper advertisements in Northern Italy. Holmes Foundry built a row of housed for the new immigrant workers. It was called “Berkely Row” located in Point Edward, close to the foundry. Holmes Foundry, no longer standing, was located at the north west corner of Christina Street and Exmouth. I was fortunate to have interviewed a number of individuals, such as the late Alfred Ruffilli, who lived in Berkely Row, which was torn down in 1937.
Some of the first Italian families who were among the first to settle in Sarnia were Alex Pennesi, Pellegrino Ruffilli, Bernardo Scimmi, Antonio Astolfi, Frank Mezzatesta. Other last names from that first group of immigrants were Venturin, Mariuz, Ferraro, Futia and Careri.
Confederation, Christina and Campbell Streets were other areas where the few Italian families settled in the 1920’s. These families were a close knit group. Their homes became havens for new Italians as they came to Sarnia.
The first Italians had to earn the respect of and acceptance by the Sarnia-Lambton population. As expressed by many of the first Italians I interviewed more than twenty-five years ago “People simply did not like you.” Today the Italian-Canadian community is a full participant, contributor and a strong part woven into Sarnia-Lambton fabric.
This was not the case pre 1920. The workplace did not have a positive view of Italians. The attitude is characterized by the following newspaper clippings: The Observer 1906… “labourers in Sarnia petitioned the Sarnia Town Council regarding local contractors who were bringing Italians to the area to pave the streets. Sarnia Town Council decided to investigate and take action and agreed that foreign laboureres were unwelcome and must not take jobs from local men.”
The Observer, April 1910… “Labour unrest in the Sarnia area again involved the use of immigrant labour. The longshoremen at Northern Navigation Company dock in Point Edward struck because Italian men were hired to load and unload steamers.”
The second and much larger wave of Italian immigrants to Sarnia-Lambton arrived around the 1950”s and the 1960’s. There is no room in this article to go into this later part of the history.
Caroline Di Cocco