Notes on 49th Text for Reading Field: Wood

Canadian History, Week 8


“A group of workers; Canadian, American, Swedish, Italian and Scots in a C.N.R. construction Camp,” Agabob, BC, 1913. Source: Frontier College / Library and Archives Canada / C-046150.

Patricia Katharine Wood. Nationalism from the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002. [Google Books preview:

Patricia Katharine Wood takes a culturalist approach to social history to describe the Italian immigrant experience in two Western Canadian provinces, from approximately the 1880s to the 1980s, and to analyze identity formation in Canada. The idea of nation and how it is understood and constructed within a politically organized society is her focus. She works within a theoretical framework, with a coherence of her own devising, which draws on a wide range of culturalist texts that in turn reflect philosophical (for example John Campbell), geographical (for example Kay Anderson), and anthropological influences – particularly in discussions of ethnicity (for example Frederik Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries).

While the coherence of her theoretical framework is admirable and for the most part compelling, Wood works within a culturalist paradigm and is not, therefore, overly concerned with supplying empirical data that would give the appearance of an irrefutable mass of  ‘proofs.’ Rather, she samples sources, ranging from such standard historiographical fare as newspapers to less traditional texts, such as poetry. These supply examples: to form a basis for generalization, to illustrate her theory in action, and, more to Wood’s purpose, to historicize her topic. She succeeds in showing that the development of a Canadian identity in people who shared an Italian identity was a process determined by individuals, place, and time, but that this process was also dependent on the individuals’ association with others. She traces the importance of various types of association through family, formal and informal social networking, civil community, and political organization. The relations of agency, power, and hegemony are implicitly laid out in the course of her examination (though the term agency is not used).

Wood starts from the premise that to understand the relation of people to nation an appreciation of the individual experience is of primary importance because “Everyday life has an immediacy that nation does not have.”[1] A second point is that people create their sense of nationality in the course of responding to contest: she states, “The nation is clearly contested space.”[2] She finds that, among Italian immigrants, individual people established their nationality through practicing agency: they grouped together, and together they determined courses of action that reflected their sense of entitlement to a place in the nation. Thus Wood finds there is power in numbers, but, only if those numbers engage in mutually supportive behaviours (what sociologists describe as generating social capital). If a group relegated to the national margins is mutually supporting they are capable of contesting hegemony, and to a fair extent of living beyond some aspects of the (imagined) region under hegemonic control. In effect, Wood describes the negotiation of a pre-defined nationalist space by new arrivals as a historical process. Italians entered the Canadian space, established their own place(s), and from these collective bases articulated how the nationalist space had been redefined by their presence (which was inextricably tied to their past), thereby asserting their own entitlement to consideration as nationals.

railway gang

“Italian stationmen on railway maintenance crew of C.N.P. [Crowsnest Pass Railway, part of Canadian Pacific Railway (C.P.R.)],” c. 1920. Source: Frontier College / Library and Archives Canada / C-046161.

The types of contests that Italian migrants faced were diverse. Becoming Canadian involved confronting nativism, racialization, and communication barriers – all of which shifted in aspect over time. It also demonstrated the diversity within the Italian experience – although two immigrants might share an ‘Italian’ designation, due to intra-Italian regional difference, or generational difference (and presumably gender difference – although Wood does not address exogamy as it affected women’s sense of community), they would not necessarily form a cooperative association in the Canadian context on the basis of a pan-Italian nationality. Although Wood suggests that class was also a factor, she does not interrogate its workings beyond observing that class and ethnicity need further exploration in the Canadian context and that “more complex models need to be explored.”[3] Likewise, she outlines government policy aimed at recruiting Italian immigrants, up to and through the 1920s, as one designed to secure manual labour, but, notably, she does not discuss the ‘Dirty Thirties’ — either to determine whether the immigrant experience at this time exhibited any signs of class conflict, or to present it as an example of a challenging event. Further, although she acknowledges that the First and Second World Wars presented challenges to Canadians who were categorized as potential carriers of a fifth column mentality, she has little to say about the first event and largely reiterates findings from previous studies to describe the second. She does add to the historiographical record in bringing to light the gender and generational differences that affected the experiences of Italian Canadians during the Second World War (in one family a father was incarcerated, while a son enlisted and fought overseas, and the mother remained outside of official purview – ‘free’ but financially straightened).

Wood supplies a good general history of the idea and institutionalization of multiculturalism in Canada: beginning with the Advisory Committee on Co-operation in Canadian Citizenship established during the Second World War; moving through Pearson, the flag debate and the report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism during the 1960s; to Trudeau’s attitudes towards Quebec through the 1970s; and the repatriation of the Constitution and the framing of Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982. She points to reasons for multiculturalism’s popularity (principally as it bolstered notions of equality and citizenship), while yet pointing out divergences in understanding and opinion within the nation (some marginalized groups rejected multiculturalism as a panacea of suspect value). An interesting aspect of her discussion is how she evaluates the Italian Canadian response to the advent of multiculturalism as an available perspective in Canada. As individuals (for example the Honourable Mr. Justice Frank Iacobucci of the Supreme Court of Canada), and as groups, Italian Canadians were able to “bend Multiculturalism as a policy to fit their purposes … [and] give it weight and teeth it may never have been intended to possess.”[4] She concludes that “Despite the hegemony of the Anglo-Canadian vision, its very exclusivity created space for independent thought among those it excluded. [As she points out, in Western Canada there was scant evidence of any Franco-Canadian or Québécoise vision, nor was there evidence of a comprehensive Anglo vision among speakers of English.] Italians became Canadians in their own way and on their own terms.”[5]

Additional resources:

Giuliana Colalillo, “The Italian Immigrant Family,” in Italians in Ontario Polyphony 7 (1985): 118-122,

Adriana Albi Davies, “History of Italian Emigration to Canada,” Alberta Online Encyclopedia,

National Congress of Italian Canadians, website,


[1] Patricia Katharine Wood, Nationalism from the Margins: Italians in Alberta and British Columbia (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), xiv.

[2] Ibid., xv.

[3] Ibid., 35.

[4] Ibid., 94.

[5] Ibid., 100.


About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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