Paola Breda on Land of Triumph and Tragedy, a Monumental New Volume on Immigrant Workers Who “Made It and Those Who Perished Trying”

Compiled after decades of research by Marino Toppan, Land of Triumph and Tragedy: Voices of the Italian Fallen Workers is an epic volume. Contributions come from scholars of Italian-Canadian history, as well as family members of many of the fallen workers themselves from across Canada. This is a ground-breaking new book with profiles of those within the Italian community in Canada who achieved great success, as well as those who died under tragic circumstances. The volume also provides in-depth analysis of immigration patterns, labour history, socio-adaptive patterns, labour action, strife and hardships, and many more themes connected to the Italian-Canadian identity. It coins a new term: Canadianità!

Land of Triumph and Tragedy is an complementary outcome to the creation of the Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Wall, unveiled on April 28, 2016 at Villa Charities, a project that was awarded the prestigious Medaglia d’Oro al Merito Civile – the first medal of this calibre ever awarded by the Italian government to anyone outside of Italy. For Toppan and Breda this book is a living memorial that should be in the home of every Canadian of Italian heritage, so that new generations know about the sacrifice of their forefathers.

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Land of Triumph and Tragedy: Voices of the Italian Fallen Workers (Verità Publishing, Toronto, 2019) was many years in the making. I was struck by its sheer heft – nearly 1000 pages and weighing three kilograms. The subtitle, “A Century of Italian Immigration to Canada: Immigrants Who Made It and Those Who Perished Trying,” is what for me reveals the true scope of this opus. What did you set out to achieve with this book?

Marino Toppan’s life-long dream of honouring the Italian immigrants who were killed building up this beautiful country was completed when The Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Wall was unveiled on April 28, 2016. It was after the official unveiling that we realized yet another legacy of the project was the large body of source documentation we had accumulated during our years of research, which uncovered many unknown/unstudied themes in the Italian-Canadian immigration story. For example, we couldn’t find any book in print (and we searched) that included the overall picture of the Italian-Canadian immigration experience to the level of detail we knew we had collected. There didn’t appear to be any geographical atlas anywhere of the Italian settlements across this great nation. Further, the story of the Italian fallen workers had not been included in any literature we could find (though the Memorial Wall is the largest of its kind in Canada). We hadn’t seen many references to crimes committed by early Italian immigrants, the work-related suicides, the hundreds of years of attempted strikes, the story of the impact of Italian-Canadian labour activism (other than in Robert Storey’s work), nor was there much about the story of the prejudicial reception Italians received in Canada over the course of the century (other than the internment during World War II), and so many other subjects. Once the Memorial Wall was unveiled, we realized that the tragedies of the Italian fallen workers opened up the story of the overall Italian-Canadian immigration to Canada and expanded it in a way never before understood. These stories told us of unknown and long-ago lost settlements, the grievous plight in the work fields across this nation, the resistance to assimilation, the resilience, the hard-fought attempts to gain safety and fairness in the workplace, and many of the trials and tribulations over the course of the century. We felt compelled to package this historically significant research and publish it, despite the difficulties. Although we did not initially set out to write a book, we really felt that the voices of the Italian fallen workers had to be allowed to speak about the lost themes (and previously untold stories) of the Italian-Canadian immigration experience.

 

Why is it so important to talk about this issue today, and how do you make it resonate with younger generations?

Marino Toppan has said that a copy of Land of Triumph and Tragedy should be in every Italian-Canadian household, specifically so that the younger generations can begin to understand the massive level of sacrifice. He believes it was his duty to retell the stories of suffering and the triumph of immigration, especially since we are nearing the sunset days of the last great wave of original Italian immigrants. He strongly believed that if he did not tell the story, it would have been lost, as so often happens. I was both humbled and grateful to help him finish telling this previously unknown part of the Italian-Canadian immigration history; we hope that this previously unknown chapter finds its way into the pages of Canadian history books.. New generations must know what their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents had to endure. If we know the full story, we can be proud of the community we’ve become here in Canada, while never forgetting the suffering of the past, and most especially the darkest part of our history — the story of the thousands of Italian fallen workers who died to build up this country.

 

Books like Il treno di lungo percorso by Fulvio Florio, and Beyond Barbed Wire (by various authors) come to mind. But Land of Triumph and Tragedy does more than simply chronicle the Italian Canadian community. It lifts history off the printed page. The depth of historical research and documentation, the collecting of photographs, documents, newspaper clippings and personal testimonies is unparalleled. Tell us about the research you did and the challenges you faced in the course of doing this research.

A 1969 book entitled Italians in Canada looked at the big picture of the Italian-Canadian immigration story, but it was dated at best, and moreover, it could not benefit from the many books and other materials that have been published since on parts of the Italian-Canadian immigration story. The Italians of Windsor, Only in Canada: the Italians of Sault Ste. Marie, and so many other books, including the ones you mention, have told bits and pieces, but not one tells the overall story. In addition to the research done by the Committee for the Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Project and submissions from the families, we were able to access many of the books written over the last decades, and pool together short synopses of these materials, mix them into the mass of significant historical research collected by our project and create a big picture of the whole story of Italian immigration to Canada between 1870 and 1970. The challenges were many. First and foremost, these projects were volunteer endeavours, so we didn’t have the advantage of free day time hours or government grants; but we soldiered on, compelled by the project. Secondly, in the case of the fallen workers’ research, we often had to substantiate family accounts by locating source documents to verify that the deaths were from workplace tragedies. Given the challenges of studying Italian stories in English media, it was a momentous task. Thirdly, the book attempts to encompass all of the settlements across Canada, though admittedly, the largest part of the focus was in the Greater Toronto Area, which is mirrored in the reality of the pattern of settlement. The farther away from a local home area one travels, the more difficult the information transfer. We definitely benefitted from email and the internet, as well as accessible resources nationwide. In one example, the work of Mary Bole and Belle Kovach (descendants of an original early Italian immigrant, their nonno Virgino Marcolin), who painstakingly studied Canada’s largest mining disaster out West — the Hillcrest Mine Disaster — was made available to us without having to spend sparse funds to travel to the actual location. Similarly, many other stories, data and material were transmitted without the need for physical visits, which we would not have been able to fund. Fourthly, any research on Italian life in Canada is mired by inaccurate translations of names and a multitude of other language barriers, and therefore creates natural challenges for verification of any research. Lastly, the book pulled from many competing submissions; we had to unite all of the themes — which were sometimes conflicting — into one cohesive account. It was difficult to find balance, but we hope we achieved that balance.

 

The quality of your research is in line with academic standards; it includes 20 pages of endnotes and an 18-page list of works cited. Yet you have clearly chosen to give voice to intensely personal accounts, making entire chapters of this book feel like intimate recollections that echo across entire generations but are nonetheless individual in nature. How important was this emphasis on first-hand accounts?

Over the course of the century (1870–1970), Italian immigrants to Canada were largely and predominantly uneducated, and they remained that way, settling in to hard work and the improvement of the future of their families. So the intensely personal accounts were crucial to the story. How can the profound effect of the plight of the fallen workers be known if they are just listed in a table as a statistic? Similarly, how can one come close to understanding the journey of the first generation, if we do not hear their lived experiences directly? As a result of the hard work of each new first generation — and their sacrifice — their children and grandchildren were able to live totally different lives, so the first hand accounts were important. Their lives were unscripted and their voices had not been heard, so it was important for us to present their stories directly and verbatim. Even if some had to be presented with Italian language errors, we felt that their legitimacy had to be maintained. The personal accounts also provided some golden nuggets which greatly assisted us in our research. One example of this is the story of the Hon. Roy Stortini in Sault Ste. Marie. In one generation, the family state transformed from that of Italian labourer to Ontario Superior Court Judge; Judge Stortini’s personal reflections and memories of the local church and Italian club burying the community’s fallen led us to many significant finds in the research on other Italian fallen workers. Were it not for Judge Stortini’s personal stories, for example, we would not have thought to research the deaths from that angle. As the new generations took advantage of the altered status attained by the first generation of intrepid migrants (regardless of which wave), and began to excel in the world of academia, we must realize that we have only been able to become so because of the sacrifices of the original forefathers. Those first generations (again, regardless of which wave), were the ones who truly bridged the two worlds. So their personal stories, alongside the stories of the widows and families left behind by the tragedy of each fallen worker, taken together, truly form our immigration story, backed up by as much source documentation as possible. We definitely strove to make the book as acceptable to the academic community as we could, so that when reviewed by the world of academia — which it undoubtedly would be — it would be reviewed as favourably as possible, so that the story would be accepted and further developed. We also wanted to ensure that the professors who made direct submissions in good faith, or who assisted us would be proud of being connected with the final product. We also had the lofty goal that the book might one day become the basis for an Italian-Canadian immigration course taught at the university level. We are saddened to know that there is no such course. More than all of that though, we intentionally emphasized the first-hand accounts because they are always the basis from which research springs and how history is uncovered. How else would Marino Toppan have uncovered the tragedy of the fallen workers of Italian origin, if he had not listened to the stories of the widows, or viewed first hand the tragic accidents of the men during the turbulent “jungle” times of the residential construction industry of the 1950s through to the 1970s? This is how this new piece of Canadian history has been uncovered; through Marino’s lived experiences, his memory and the widows’ first-hand accounts, which were then verified and validated by source documentation. He has created what we believe to be the best account of Italian-Canadian immigration history to date. In doing so, he has also uncovered many new themes of our history, which we hope will eventually be integrated into Canadian history.

 

The volume is printed on high quality glossy paper with much attention given to visual details. It includes a great number of high-quality photographs, illustrations and graphs. It is not just a well-researched historical account, but it is beautifully packaged. Why did you pay so much attention to this aspect of the book?

As a second-generation Italian Canadian, I was humbled to learn in detail some cold hard truths about the level of sacrifice and the horror of the fallen workers’ tragedies and the injured workers life-changing accidents, as well as the honest hard-work ethic of hundreds of thousands of men and women from rural Italy. I was personally humbled to learn so much more about what I already knew — about who left Italy and why, and what they endured when they arrived here and for decades afterwards. The book was intentionally printed on high quality glossy paper, in a metaphoric attempt to demonstrate pride and honour in the collective accomplishments of the first generations, elevating their humble path from Italy to Canada on the epic journey for the future of their families, which in the end, everyone agrees they achieved. Similarly, the weight of the book, which you referenced as a hefty tome, was duly intended to symbolize the weight of the Italian contribution to Canada, from its humble beginnings to its current position. Finally, we wanted to ensure that all the respect possible could be given to this incredible story brought forth by the stolen voices of the Italian workers who lost their lives on the soil we now call home. We do hope that this book becomes a part of many Italian-Canadian households and we do hope that it is considered a beautiful gift. Christmas is coming and it would indeed be a great gift for anyone in our community.

 

Another unique feature of Land of Triumph and Tragedy is the fact that it was made possible by the contributions of the community at large – not only for the testimonies, articles, pictures and documents they provided, but also by the donations given by an impressive list of donors and collaborators. What does it mean when so many people get behind a project like this?

As some would say, it is sometimes difficult to get people in the Italian community to collaborate, given the divided history, the fragmented geography, the diverse patterns of migration and the varied end-paths of those who travelled to various places. While working on The Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Wall and Land of Triumph and Tragedy, we maintained a non-partisan, non-judgemental, non-regional and non-positional stance. It was purely about bringing the untold story of the fallen workers to the pages of Canadian history, with a short stop in the annals of the largely unwritten story of the Italian-Canadian immigration story and within the Italian community. Donors and collaborators were more than willing to participate, given our content, the scope of our project and the respect for Marino Toppan, as well as the credibility earned by the completion of The Italian Fallen Workers Memorial Wall. Many wonderful supporters from within the community like renown poet Gianna Patriarca and award-winning photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo, and so many Italian-Canadian university professors added prestige to our project. And we were very grateful for their involvement and strong support. While we both worked very hard for many years on Land of Triumph and Tragedy, we were grateful for the incredible support of all our donors, sponsors, supporters and collaborators, without whom we would not have been able to complete this colossal project.

 

After the 968 pages, is there anything still left to say, anything you still want to explore?

Even though Land of Triumph and Tragedy ended up being almost 1000 pages, unbelievably, almost 500 pages had to be edited out! We have so much more that we couldn’t consider due to space constraints. We would have liked to include more family stories, more in-depth portraits of life in the smaller settlements, and more detail on the new themes uncovered. Having said that, we believe Land of Triumph and Tragedy met its mark; as a consequence, we are very proud of this accomplishment. We look to the community at large to study and enhance the many new themes brought forward in our ground breaking new book, for example erasing the myth of Italians as strike-breakers and presenting the reality that Italians attempted to strike literally hundreds of times over the century. Other new themes presented in Land of Triumph and Tragedy include but are not limited to the psychological effects of abrupt migration to a foreign country where immigrants endured terrible prejudices and hardships beyond comprehension, the propensity for suicide during the early part of the last century, people living in the rail cars, Italian-on-Italian crime, the contribution of women and their sacrifice, the anti-Fascists like Attilio Bortolotti who were ahead of their time, and the artists that are virtually unknown but deserve recognition, like Louis Temporale. We look forward to the acceptance of our newly coined phrase, Canadianità, as a way to express or define the developed path of Italians in Canada, since it was so different from the path taken by Italians who remained in Italy and those who migrated elsewhere. As for the future, we look towards government grants to expand the research on the fallen workers of Italian origin and possibly digitize the entire collection of the Corriere Canadese. In the near future, we also hope to complete a documentary on this newly uncovered theme in Canadian history and finally, we hope to find innovative ways to spread the word about our ground-breaking new book to the field of academia and broaden its reach within the Italian-Canadian community, and in the study of immigration history, so that all may realize the sacrifice of our forefathers and so that one day our story too, is included in the overall narrative of Canadian history.

 

Land of Triumph and Tragedy: Voices of the Italian Fallen Workers, A Century of Italian Immigration to Canada: Immigrants Who Made it and Those Who Perished Trying can be ordered at www.monumentoaicaduti.com (www.ItalianFallenWorkersMemorial.com) or picked up at the front desk of Toronto’s Columbus Centre.

Happie Clara Testa is the owner of Librairie Mosaïque Bookstore and Creative Director of Librissimi, the Toronto Italian Book Festival (ComItEs, Toronto)

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