Italians in Canada

Guest blogger, Cathy Crenna,  writes about the history of Italian migrants in Canada where she lives in Guelph. Cathy’s ancestors are linked to Secondo Tonellato, who had migrated from Caselle di Altivole to Adelaide in 1927.
Cathy wrote two blogs last year about her family history research

Italian immigration to Canada occurred in two main waves, from 1900 to the First World War and from 1950 to 1970. The second wave of Italian immigration was second only to immigration from Great Britain. The northern Italian rural Venetian and Fruili regions, along with almost all regions of southern Italy, were sources of Italian immigration to Canada.   There are about 1.4 million Canadians of Italian descendent in Canada today. Most arrived by ship at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or at Ellis Island, New York, U.S.A.

By far most immigrants came for the work offered in major centres of Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, however, a number of labourers eventually decided to settle in smaller numbers in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and communities surrounding the major centres.  Some Italians established orchards, vineyards and vegetable farms in agricultural communities in western Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Alberta, and British Columbia. Many Italians living in the outskirts of Montreal grew small crops on unoccupied fields for local consumption and to provide additional support for their families. They came to make money, planning on returning to Italy, often travelling back and forth many times. Often the return trip to Canada would include relatives and friends inspired by the opportunities in Canada. Some immigrants came to stay.

‘Little Italy Cookbook,’ Maria Pace & Louise, Siani-Jojic, Warwick Publishing, Ontario, 1996.

In areas where Italian families settled, often because of kinship or village ties, “Little Italys”, or ethnic neighbourhoods developed. In Guelph, where I grew up, our neighbourhood of Italian immigrants was known as “The Ward”.  Identifying with other Italians and sharing family and group loyalty provided a sense of security and extended families into a much larger group of paesani connected by personal bonds.

The Italian-Canadian Cultural Community had a strong role in supporting Italian identity and success in Canada.  In Dominion, Cape Breton Island, one of the largest Italian communities east of Montreal, immigrants built the Dominion Italian Hall in 1936.

Dominion Italian Community Hall (‘Accenti’ Magazine, 21 March 2011)

Most families originated in the province of Treviso.  In the Lakehead area of Northern Ontario, there were over 2,000 Italians by 1921 – Port Arthur predominantly southern Italian and Fort William, northern Italian.   In 1929, an Italian Society was formed and their first Italian Hall opened in 1939. In Port Colborne, the Italian Canadian Cultural Centre was established in 1935.  In cities and towns all across Canada societies were formed and halls were built that were a great source of pride for the members and the community

Mutual support societies and Italian cultural communities, with or without a formal club or hall, provided an element of dignity and self-respect. It gave the Italian community support with integration and growth into the Canadian society. Members now had a place where they could meet, gossip, play cards, and play leadership roles inside and outside the membership.

Guelph Festival Italiano, 2017. Courtesy, Cathy Crenna.
Guelph Festival Italiano, 2017, poster. Courtesy, Cathy Crenna.

Cultural Associations are very much alive in Canada today, particularly in the large cities.  Serving several generations, Italian Canadians clubs offer Italian language school for adults and children, financial assistance for pensioners, choir, social events, sports programs and events, and food and drink throughout the year.  Italian clubs in smaller cities struggle with declining membership.

The Italian Canadian Club of Guelph in my hometown, serving a population of about 20,000 citizens of Italian heritage, was central to many social activities for the Italian Community.  In 1989 the I.C.C. hosted a Caselle di Altivole, Treviso reunion with attendees coming to Guelph from All Canada, USA and Italy.

Guelph Festival Italiano 2017, grape crushing. Courtesy, Cathy Crenna.
Guelph Festival Italiano, 2017. Courtesy, Cathy Crenna.



Grease pole at Guelph Festival Italiano, 2016. Courtesy, Cathy Crenna.

The Festival Italiano was a favourite every summer, but with declining attendance, 2017 was the last year it was held.  Second, third and fourth generation Italian family lifestyles had changed. Cheese-rolling, grease-pole climbing, grape-stomping and spaghetti eating contests, were not as interesting to the younger population.

Shared stores enrich the history of our community. Stories of childhood memories in Italy, the courage and sacrifices during and after the war, reasons for leaving the homeland, challenges of crossing the Atlantic, the arrival and its first hardships, accomplishments and personal and career successes, all these stories and more reveal the vibrancy of a people whose deepest wish was to improve themselves and the lives of those they loved.

Since 2011, June has been known as Italian Heritage Month in Ontario. The province aims to recognize the contributions Italian immigrants have made in building Ontario’s communities.  The contributions of Italians to the development of Canada are respected and honoured.

Cathy Crenna
28 November 2021


Lives in photos – Part 2

In the second of the blogs about photos in the lives of the Veneto market gardener families, I look at some images that were taken around in Adelaide after the arrival of the men and women who established market gardens in the Kidman Park and Flinders Park area. Families have kindly given me permission to use the photos on the website and they have become an archive.

The oldest photo taken in Adelaide that I have seen is the portrait of Lina nee Bordin and Gelindo Rossetto with their eldest son Romeo who died when he was seven years old. It was taken around 1931 at Lockleys on the southern side of the River Torrens where Gelindo and Lina had a market garden.

Gelindo seems to be feeding something to Romeo while Lina stands behind them, eyes fixed at the photographer, a strong gaze. We, the viewers, see the context of the land, the old gums, the bamboo growing along the river. The photo communicates an image of a pioneer family. It is a portrait but not the formal kind taken in a studio. It is as if Gelindo has taken a break from his work on the market garden to join Lina and Romeo for the photograph. Perhaps the photo was processed for the families back in the province of Treviso to show life on the land in Adelaide. Who took the family portrait in the open air? Who had a camera at that time?

Family reunion
Members of the Tonellato family were reunited in June 1935, eight years after Secondo Tonellato had migrated to Adelaide. Elisabetta arrived in Port Pirie with the five children, Lui, aged 13, Rosina, aged 12, Alberto, aged 10, Lino, 9 years and Nino, 8 years who was born the same year as his father departed from Caselle di Altivole.

Tonellato family, Frogmore Road, 1935.
L-R: Nano, Elisabetta, Albert, Lui, Rosina, Secondo, Lino. Courtesy, Tonellato family.

The photo here captures the family gathered the day after the reunion in Adelaide. The family is photographed outside the vagon or train wagon that Secondo had purchased to house Elisabetta and the children in the middle of the market garden. The family look straight at the camera with an intensity that suggests that they are not familiar with ‘sitting’ for a photo shoot.

Tonellato family & vagone, Frogmore Road, 1935
Tonellato family & vagon, Frogmore Road, 1935. Courtesy, Tonellato family.

The second photo of the reunited Tonellato family is taken at a distance from the family group in the borrowed trap. Rosina is wearing the same apron as in the other photo which indicates that it was taken on the same day. The full view of the vagon suggests a kind of permanent presence with trees planted in front and steps up to the carriage on the right hand side. The  camera equipment is in the foreground on the left – the lasting mark of the photographer.

The power of the Box Brownie camera
In her interviews recorded in 2010 and 2011, Lina Rismondo nee Marchioro recalled that her father gave her a Brownie Box camera for her 12th birthday in 1939. “I think my Dad spoilt me, really. He used to love buying me things.” The ‘Brownie’ had been marketed for some time as a simple camera for the use of children and adolescents and fortunately for us, Lina used her camera to capture the lives of the Veneto market gardener families in what they called the ‘Lockleys’ area in the 1940s.

Lina was born in 1927, a year after her parents, Francesco and Margherita Marchioro, arrived in Adelaide with their daughter Mary. The third daughter, Connie, was born later, before the war. The family had lived in the city before moving to Frogmore Road where Margherita worked a market garden with her brother-in-law, Vittorio. Lina’s family transferred their home and farm to Pierson Street Lockleys where they were living during the war years.

Angelina Marchioro & Margherita Marchioro picking onions, Frogmore Road, c 1940s

Lina began taking photos of her world and documented the lives of her family, relatives and other Veneto families in her large collection. One photo shows her mother and aunt, Angelina Marchioro, picking onions on Frogmore Road, a reminder that women also worked the land. The trees in the background form a border between market gardens.

The range of the photos taken by Lina  provide an insight into the lives of the market gardener families, relationships in families and the community.

Links between families

Maria and Jimmy Ballestrin, Angelina and Johnny Marchioro, Frogmroe Road, c 1941.

Lina took this photo of Maria & Egidio Ballestrin, Angelina & Johnny Marchioro on Frogmore Road sometime in 1941. Jimmy and his mother had arrived in Fremantle in June 1940 expecting to join Narcisio, Maria’s husband and Jimmy’s father who had been in Adelaide with his brothers since 1938. Jimmy explains in his interview that when they arrived the passengers on the ‘Remo’ were considered ‘prisoners-of-war’ because Italy had entered the war against the Allies. The passengers were not able to continue their journey for about three weeks while the Australian Government decided what to do.

In the photo, Maria and Angelina are standing in front of a chook run and behind them in the background is the Marchioro market garden and the corrugated iron house is in the top right. The two women holding their first-born children look content and proud standing in the context of a fairly harsh environment.

The Ballestrins and the Marchioros did not know each other in Italy and became friends through being part of the Veneto market gardener community. Jimmy and Johnny have maintained a life-long friendship.

The early photos of the ‘pioneer’ Veneto market gardener families provide a record of beginnings of life in Adelaide. We are fortunate to have access to photos taken in the first years of settlement of families.

Two future blogs will focus on photos taken of families and the community after World War II.

Madeleine Regan
14 November 2021


Lives in photos – Part 1

This blog is about photos in the lives of the Veneto market gardener families and is the first of three parts. Part 1 is about the photos taken before family members
migrated to Adelaide in the late 1920s.
In Part 2 I will focus on photos taken in the early years of the Veneto market gardeners.
I will post the final part in late December and it will concentrate on the photos
taken by families after World War II.

When was the last time you took a photo? If you’re like me, it was probably a few days ago – I took some photos on my iPhone. I could look at the image straight away, edit it by cropping and share it with others via a text or other media and delete which ones I didn’t like.

In the lives of the Veneto market gardeners, photos held a different value. They were precious because they were not taken every day and they were expensive to develop or purchase from a studio photographer.

I’ve been fortunate that the people I’ve interviewed for the project have given me permission to use photos that are now on the website. When you look at the galleries on the webpages you will see photos that communicate stories for families. They capture a moment at a particular time, in a particular place and hold a memory for the future. The photos include images of individuals, family groups and events such as weddings and baptisms. There are not many that capture working life because photos were taken to show occasions that were socially important and told the stories of changes in families.

Before the ease of taking snaps with smart phone cameras, photos were extremely important because families could see how their absent members celebrated events. Photos of the veneti were sent from one side to the other side of the world.

A photo from Bigolino – about 1918
I’m very interested in the early photos that were taken for family records. For example, the photo of the Rossetto family is the feature photo of this blog. It was taken about 1918 and depicts Elena Vettorello and Modesto Rossetto and their nine children against the family house at Bigolino. The two eldest sons are dressed in the uniform of the Alpino soldiers which is evidence of their service during World War I.

Perhaps the portrait was taken to mark the safe return of sons from the First World War. We do not know who took the photo. It has become a lasting record of a large family before the children married and before eight of the nine began emigrating to Adelaide. In 1926, Domenico, second from the left in the back row, was the first to migrate to Australia leaving his wife Carmela and daughter, Anna.

A farewell photo – 1938
The youngest Rossetto son, Giuseppe, (Beppi) aged about five migrated in 1938 and the following photo was taken on the day he left Bigolino inside the large family household. He is in the middle of the back row dressed in a suitcoat and tie.

Rossetto family group – the day of Giuseppe’s departure to Australia, Bigolino 1938.  Courtesy, Maria Rosa Tormena.

The photo shows three generations of the Rossetto family and the remaining children, their spouses and children. Beppi is photographed with his parents and other siblings, nieces and nephews including Johnny and Maria Rosa Tormena. Surely this photo was an attempt to record the departure of Beppi, the youngest member of the Rossetto family.

A keepsake photo – before family reunion in Adelaide
A family photo that has particular emotional significance as a keepsake is the portrait of Elvio, Norina and Vito Rebuli taken after their father, Bruno,

Elvio, Dorina, Vito Rebuli, Bigolino, late 1920s. Courtesy, Elena Rebuli.

left for Australia in 1927. In the photo, the three children under five years old, are photographed in an outside location and behind them it is possible to see a row of pot plants and then a group of people who has gathered near an old building. It is likely that it was snapped in the late 1920s.

It would have been taken by a professional photographer who converted the photo to a postcard that Nana Rebuli nee Rossetto posted to her husband to an address on Kangaroo Island where Bruno Rebuli worked for a farmer for some time before the family was reunited in 1931.

Photo of a proxy marriage – 1930

Celebration of the proxy marriage of Lina Bordin and Gelindo Rossetto, 1930. Courtesy, Maria Rosa Tormena.

The large group photo was taken at the proxy marriage of Lina Bordin and Gelindo Rossetto in 1930. Gelindo’s father stood in for his son at the wedding. Lina is seated in the front row, fourth from the left, between her father-in-law who is pointing at Lina, and her mother-in-law. She wears a fur around her shoulders. The guests who are members of the Bordin and Rossetto families are well dressed and have been assembled outside a house where the photo was taken by a professional photographer. Lina lived with her parents-in-law for five months before she sailed to Adelaide to begin her married life with Gelindo. The photo would have been sent to Gelindo – as a memento of his marriage by proxy.

Passport photos – taken in Italy
Photo identification was important documentation for migrants in passports. In Australia at the time of naturalisation, people had to hand over their passports as they relinquished their Italian nationality. It’s been possible to locate some passports in the papers held at the National Archives of Australia. The passport photos were formal and often taken shortly before the migrants left their families.

Isidoro Ballestrin, passport photo, 1927. NAA:A435, 1947/4/2012.


Passport photo – Giovanni Santin – for entry into Canada 1910. Courtesy, Diana Panazzolo nee Santin.

Photographs taken of our forebears many decades ago are valuable reminders of the circumstances of migrant families and their separation from loved ones. We can appreciate the challenges of migration in the snapshots of members of the Veneto families.

If you have photos that were taken before your relatives migrated from Italy, do they hold different meaning from the ones taken after they arrived in Adelaide? You may have photos that you could add to the family web page and share with the Veneto community. Please get in touch with me and we can organise to include them on the website.

Madeleine Regan
31 October 2021