BY DAVE OBEE, TIMES COLONIST JULY 31, 2011
WHOEVER GIVES US BREAD: THE STORY OF ITALIANS IN BRITISH COLUMBIA
By Lynne Bowen
Douglas and McIntyre, 372 pp., $32.95.
One of the most remarkable markers in Ross Bay Cemetery, close to the graves of Sir James Douglas and Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, belongs to a family named Bossi.
It's remarkable for a couple of reasons: Its sheer grandeur, and the fact that it belongs to a family that did not have its origins in the British Isles.
An Italian surname? Out of place, it might seem, in Victoria's historic waterfront burying ground.
Yet Carlo Bossi, a millionaire when he died in 1895, was certainly not the only Italian immigrant who helped transform British Columbia. Our history is filled with Italian names, if we would care to look.
Lynne Bowen, a writer from Nanaimo, has compiled a comprehensive, yet highly readable, account of the contribution made by the Italian community.
There were entrepreneurs such as Carlo Bossi and his brother Giacomo, who built a store at the corner of Johnson and Store streets that evolved into the Grand Pacific Hotel.
Italians settled throughout the province. The Casorsos have been prominent in the Okanagan Valley for more than a century. The Capozzis helped create the province's wine industry, and Herb Capozzi was instrumental in the history of the Vancouver Canucks, B.C. Lions and Vancouver Whitecaps.
Phil Gaglardi was a legendary politician, known for getting highways built and then speeding on them. Angelo Branca was a highly respected judge.
There have been tens of thousands of other Italians, or Canadians with Italian heritage, who have made a difference here. Many of them were labourers, miners or millworkers - or the women who provided the foundation for strong families. Their memories and achievements would have been forgotten if not the Whoever Gives Us Bread.
Bowen has written five other books on Western Canadian history, including Boss Whistle and Those Lake People. She knows how to mine sources for rich detail, and how to weave the stories together into a book that brings history back to life.
She starts her book with a modern visit to Italy, to the very villages where some early Vancouver Island residents were from. The context and sense of place that comes from this help to put the B.C. story into perspective.
Immigration is based on pushes and pulls. There were reasons why people chose to leave the country where they were raised, and reasons why they came to Canada. It's difficult to tell one story without telling the other as well. Bowen makes it all clear.
The Bossis? Their influence is still felt in downtown Victoria, in a couple of ways at least. Their Grand Pacific building is still there, and proudly carries its name and the year of construction. And the Ocean Island Backpackers Inn, at the corner of Pandora Avenue and Blanshard Street, is a Bossi building as well.
But the Italian presence in British Columbia is not really about buildings, as tangible as they may be. The Italian community has, as Bowen so clearly tells us, made a tremendous difference on what British Columbia has become.
The reviewer, the editorial page editor of the Times Colonist, is the author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist