Fernie’s Italian community developed over a period of about 140 years. The communities’ stories are those of the settlement of southeastern British Columbia and eras of boom and bust.
The Pioneer Era (1880s to the early 1920s) saw Italian immigrants largely working in railway construction and maintenance, and in the numerous mines in the region. Men who came alone to make money and return decided to settle, marry and raise families. As outsiders, they encountered racism but overcame it and contributed to Fernie’s development.
Following the Great War, the Government of Canada made immigration policies even more restrictive with respect to immigrants of non-British origin. As a result, Fernie’s Italian population was largely stagnant until the late 1940s.
The Second World War Era (1939 to 1945) saw Italians, even those born in Canada or naturalized Canadians, designated as “enemy aliens”, though none from Fernie were interned. This experience reinforced the importance of assimilation and resulted in the loss of the Italian language and cultural traditions.
The floodgates to immigration from Western Europe were opened in 1949 as Canada, again, required immigrants for resource development and expansion of manufacturing and service sectors. The bulk of immigration from Italy occurred in the period 1949 to 1970. A new generation of Italians arrived in Fernie and went to work in the mining industry. Many others made their way into the professions and established their own businesses. It is this generation of immigrants who preserve and share Fernie’s Italian cultural memories and traditions.