Nanaimo Historical Society Fonds

Series 2.  Sound Recordings

Tape 91, Side 2, Feb. 26 1978

Gino Sedola interviewed by Henry Poikonen 

Re: The Italian Community of Nanaimo

Transcribed by: Nancy Lee Deslauriers, August 2008

H. Poikonen: February 1978. I'm sitting with Gino Sedola. You were born in Nanaimo were you not?

G. Sedola: Yes, that's right. I was in Nanaimo in 1927. The information that I can offer you is very limited. Certainly it will be from a limited point of view. Um, I'm not too acquainted with the history of the Italians in Nanaimo, um, I supposed if one were to really examine history you'd have to go back to you know, the last century and examine the motivation of the people moving out here and ah, the groups of people and so on that came out.

Um, you have to understand really the groupings within Italy when you talk of Italians and so on. Their quite a diverse group of people and this relates of course to the fact that in the 1800s, Italy was in fact a series of separate city states and kingdoms and so on. Uh, which were not united at that particular time. I thing probably one of the latest states to become part of Italy was the area up around Venice and that was somewhere in the area of 1886 or somewhere in that area. And it's the area which a great number, in fact most of the Italians of Nanaimo came from.

Um, there were a lot of smaller isolated villages too, and the relations, which exist between various people of the so-called Italian community, are related very directly to these communities, which they came from. In other words if you recognize that England, Germany, Scotland and so on many of these countries at the time …… the industrial revolution were isolated agricultural communities, and so was the North of Italy from which these people came.

My folks and many of the people who came to Nanaimo came from the area centering around Venice. My folks came from the, what you might call the foothills of the Alps, as did many other families within Nanaimo. Um, I'll bet some of them came from the western area of Venice and essentially their mainly Northern Italians.

H. Poikonen: Were there coal mines there? Or anything like they would be working at here?

G. Sedola: No, not really. As I say they were mainly an agricultural people and, of course, like England and some of the other areas, in the Industrial Revolution, people began to move to the industrial areas. Also, what was happening in the northern part of Italy and, as I say in other parts of Europe, was, that as the families grew the pressure on the land became greater and just for survival it was necessary for a lot of the people in this area to move into other areas, mainly to Austria, Belgium, France and so on. To work in areas which were reflecting the happenings of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of them went to cities and learned trades, rather than trying to survive on small patches of land which were divided among many sons and so on. So people like my father, of course, went into Germany and Austria and he learned the carpentering trade. People like Mr. Venuti became a stonemason.  A very expert stonemason.  As did people like Mr.[?], Mr. Venuti, and Mr. [Pullum?]. So they learned various trades.

H. Poikonen: Guizzettis later on too I guess?

G. Sedola: Guizzettis, Yes, they were comparatively recent arrivals in Nanaimo. I believe some time in the 30s.

Now I'm more acquainted with people, um, you see Nanaimo was not typical probably of a lot of areas, you'll notice in the community today, the people are scattered throughout the community. In other words, they didn't sort of segregate to the extent that they did in some of the larger cities.  And particularly where you have traditions say in the Southern Italian family tradition. It's a closer sort of group. Um, they scattered throughout the community so I can only give you a very narrow point of view. Those people who might be in contact (?).

Going back into the early history of Nanaimo as I see it, and I can only guess at a lot of things that you will have to cross check. Um, the earliest people that I'm acquainted with, for example the one of the first Sedolas that I know came to Nanaimo came in, I believe, somewhere in the 1870s. Um, she married a man by the name of Cuffalo and they owned the Columbus Hotel. Their daughter married a Mister Gusola and the Gusolas are still well known in town. There's young Alex Gusola in town and uh Alex Gusola's sister Gloria married uh, what's his name, Williams, they have a bulldozing [?], Frank Williams. So that was that particular family.

Like I say, she came in 1870 some time.

Mr. Cuffalo, another Mr. Cuffalo, who was the nephew of I believe of John Cuffalo, at the Columbus Hotel, came out maybe 1906 and so on. He established his home on the corner of Finlayson Street and Haliburton Street. He died about a year ago and it's unfortunate you weren't able to speak with him because he had a very keen, sharp memory at the time of his death. I believe he was 93 when he died and was able to relate a lot of the history of the people of that particular time from his point of view.

My father was a friend of John Cuffalo's and I my dad came out some time in 1910. Came out and like Mr. Venuti and some of these people, although they had trades, found that they were not often able to practice them so they gravitated towards, of course, the major industry of this community, which was at that time the coal mining industry.

Most of the people went into the coalmines at first although quite a number of people went into various types of businesses, either the grocery, or the hotel business. Mr. Gusola, of course, was very prominent in the clothing industry in Nanaimo, prior to that he started in a corner grocery store apparently and ah, from that point, ah. Mr. Bo was quite active in the grocery industry, the grocery aspect of commerce, and you have Mr. Benny who went into the hotel business and a Mr. Balzano as I recall. I can just vaguely recall him.  He had, I believe, the Nanaimo Hotel. His daughter is the present Mrs. [Valli?]

H. Poikonen: Ah, she's Mrs. [Valli?].

G. Sedola: That's right.

Mr. Venuti went into the grocery business. Most of the others, as I say, continued in the mining industry but you'll probably have noticed from your experience in years gone by that a lot of the agricultural tendencies of the people continued to exist. You'll find fine gardens, type of thing, and even today of course, their own gardens are very important to them. As is the wine making. They always, of course, have their glass of wine.

Talking in terms of diet perhaps, it's rather interesting that that diet which is typically known as Italian was not typically of the people certainly that I knew, that came from the north of Italy. They were essentially a maize growing people rather than the usual spaghetti type. I think they had polenta, which was essentially a maize which was made into a cake and was eaten as a staple in that particular country.

H. Poikenen: Was that not as fattening as spaghetti though?

G. Sedola: Well, they weren't particularly fat; I don't suppose they were that well fed. No, it's a sort of a cake type of thing which was boiled up in a pot almost into a porridge but into a very stiff sort of porridge, which was cut into cubes and eaten with stews and gravy's and that type of thing. And, of course, their gardens were very important to them.

I remember this Mrs. Cuffalo as I was saying previously was a Sedola, indirectly related to my family, I don't know just how. She must have come out as a very young girl in the [‘20s or in the '30s?] while she was in her 20s. She must have died sometime in the 30s (1930s), because I can recall her, very small, must have been a very intelligent woman. She spoke extremely well. Didn't have too much of a trace of an accent as a matter of fact as I recall. Very intelligent, well dressed, almost a dowager type. Very small but dressed almost in a Victorian sort of way.

H. Poikonen: This is the Mrs. Cuffalo of the corner of Finlayson and ah?

G. Sedola: No no, this is the [Cuffalo?] of the Columbus Hotel. The grandfather of the present Alex Gusola, who is in Nanaimo.

H. Poikonen: I see. I'm going to refer to this list that Jim Borserio gave me that gives the names of several men who said that they batched on Kennedy street next to [Peter Logan Bull?], so these guys would have been single when they came out here. So I presume that they were from northern Italy?

G. Sedola: I'm not too familiar with that era. I've heard people discuss the early days, and a lot of the people that came out, came out in their early 20s, and in the case of my father came out in 1910. He went back some years later, married my mother. There must have been quite a number of young single people at that time, most of whom either made one trip back or had known girls or, in some cases, they were married and the wives came out at a later date. Um, but as I say that was before my time, so I don't really know about that but apparently they did have boarding houses at which they did - I believe boarding houses were very common in the Nanaimo area at that time and uh, even some of the hotels downtown I've heard talked about a lot of miners, even the English miners came out and they each had their particular areas that they lived in. Um, of course I only know the later periods, say from the 30s on. By that time, families were already established then.

There were a lot of um, Yugoslav people who were very often confused with Italians.

H. Poikonen: Well I know [----------?] had gardens too didn't they?

G. Sedola: They had gardens and many of them continued. They had their families in Yugoslavia and they didn't come out. Many of them, even to this day, there's a number of them around who have families in Yugoslavia, who for some reason or other didn't bring them out.

H. Poikonen: I saw in the paper the other day that the Catholic Church in Nanaimo was established 100 years ago. I don't know if that was the one on Wallace Street next to the [______?] or if it was the one before that somewhere else but so I guess there was quite a number of Italians involved with setting up of that.

G. Sedola: I imagine so. Mostly the Catholics, most of the Italians, of course, came from very strong Catholic backgrounds. And it's rather interesting from my experience; either they remained very devout Catholics or, as I've heard expressed so many times, they felt that they'd prayed enough while they were in Italy, have done for a lifetime, so very….there was quite a dichotomy in that area. Many of them were not devout Catholics, although the influences and the effect of the earlier upbringing I suppose were there. But um, many of them did not necessarily associate themselves directly with the church, although some did.

H. Poikonen: Well there has been a lodge here for about 60 years, at least I understand.

G. Sedola: Yeah, uh, the Cavalotti, the Felice Cavalotti Lodge. I think that was established personally because of the fact that they were completely isolated from their homes. And incidentally, um, it's rather interesting, I don't speak Italian, and many of the second generation Italian's don't. But the attitude, which prevailed, certainly in my family at that time was that um, it's unfortunate that they had to move from the country, but this was now their country and I was to learn English. And um, there wasn't a thought certainly in my family of going back again. It must have been quite a traumatic experience for them to have to leave their families. I know my mother often spoke of uh, coming out here and having to leave and knowing that she would never see her family again as my father [?], although he went back and married my mother.  

H. Poikonen: People couldn't afford to go back in those days could they? Because it took so long and besides it's not like today where….

G. Sedola: No, it was a question of establishing families and uh, the dollars had to go towards that sort of thing. And it was also I think, it took so many weeks of travel, I couldn't speak of their trips across the Atlantic and the sea sicknesses and the thought that they'd never want to go through that again. Um, so really they never thought in terms of going back. Um, I heard very [?], I have cousins and uncles and that sort of thing. I'm not even sure of how many I have, where they are and I've never been back there, although I'd very much like to at this time but it was just a question of learning the language I suppose they felt that this was a new country and this was where they were going to establish and this was it and so there wasn't particularly any point. I think it's regrettable really that we weren't exposed to a greater extent to the culture and language.

H. Poikonen: Well, it's that much more difficult for an immigrant coming to a new country, to learn a new language if they still speak it at home. I'm lucky that I can still speak Finnish. My mother was born in Finland.

G. Sedola: Well I can understand the language, although many of the people, particularly the people of the area which I mentioned, spoke a dialect which was completely unrelated to the Italian language so actually, in fact, in school they learned Italian whereas in their homes they spoke the language that was completely unrelated to Italian so they had the two languages. Um, I know when I was a child we were surrounded by people of various ethnic groups. There were Yugoslavs, Czechoslovakians, Italians, and the various dialects of the Italians were spoken. I was exposed to all these.  And, ah, it's rather interesting that though I could understand and still understand these languages today, I never responded in anything but English, and as a consequence, I can't speak the languages but if I'm spoken to in, say, Czechoslovakian I can understand it. Or even Italian but it's almost as if there are two parts of the mind, receptive part and [inaudible].

H. Poikonen: A child learns very easily, but I guess forgets very easily too, unless you keep it up.

G. Sedola: That's right. I learned these various languages before I even went to school. Of course, my parents to a great extent learned the language, as did many of these families, from the children. Acquired the language in school and brought it back to the homes, they learned the language there.

H. Poikonen: But coming to more modern days, lets say 20 years ago, is the Italian Fountain, which is very evident when you drive through town. Shall we talk about that? What started that off? The project.

G. Sedola: During the Centennial year, there was a feeling by the Italian community that they would like to do something to contribute and someone came up with the idea of building a fountain, in the downtown area. I believe it was Mrs. [Kennedy?] that went to Italy and saw the fountains and so on. She suggested that this would be a good idea. And was called up by the Italian community at that time. I had had some experience having gone to art school and so on in design. So they came to me and ah, asked for suggestions as to what could be done. So I gathered together four people including myself, who would act as a designing team. There was George Norris, who was a Vancouver sculptor, note, he designed the Centennial Crab in front of the Centennial building in Vancouver, and ah, myself, Dave Denby, who was in town. He was working with the Biological station as a marine illustrator, and a Jack [Aquary?, Aquite ?] who was also an artist but was working for a design-engineering firm at the time. So we got together and tried to utilize some of the unused skills of some of the people who were in Nanaimo, some of the stone masons and so on. We had a very limited budget with which to work with at that time, something like $2000, which was a considerable amount I suppose at the time. It probably cost about $4000 because we asked them to expand it. 

But we wanted to show some of the skills of the artisans in Nanaimo and ah, Mr. Venuti, who was quite an expert stone cutter along with George Norris who was a sculptor, took, I believe, it was Nelson Island granite, these chunks of granite which weighed something like two tons and we imported them and ah, carved those into fish and what we were trying to depict in that fountain was the recurrence or the recurring cycle of life of the salmon which was symbolic. It you notice in the mosaic, the small fry are going down to the sea, and the larger salmon are going back up and, of course, the large jumping salmon, which were cut from granite.

Also the stonework, which you see, which was excellent stonework around the fountain itself is rather interesting. This being a sort of sandstone area, we wanted to use granite, which, of course, is more lasting and the only granite which was in this area, of course, is that which was left by glaciers and we do find a large chunk of granite which was down at Yellow Point. It was on the highway right-of-way and apparently it was quite a point of interest, you know, people would pull over on the side of the road. And we got the permission of the Department of Highways to blast this out and use this material for the structure of the fountain. It was rather interesting. I went out there one day and drilled the rock, and blasted and people who were, of course, going off to work that morning saw this large rock and when they came back at night it was completely shattered, it was just rubble and pieces but it was rather interesting the rumours that went about or the thoughts of the people at the time that, there were all sorts of theories as to what happened to this big boulder. People were saying “No, it was just the temperature changes and so on which affected it over a period of time and it suddenly collapsed” and so on.  But in actual fact, we just blasted it to bits and brought it in to construct the fountain out of it.

H. Poikonen: How long did it take you to actually construct it then?

G. Sedola:  On, it went on for, because it was all volunteer labour and there was a few skilled craftsmen around, it went on for a period of a couple of years actually, but I can't recall how long now. Most of the work which ah, is in the fountain is of course is buried because a lot of it was built on mine slag as you are aware, it's all water at one time. I can recall when it was 40 minutes of sledgehammer, so we had to design a pad, which would sustain that weight, and there is a tremendous amount of weight with all that granite. We put in a tremendous amount of re-enforcement steel so most of the structural work is not exposed.

H. Poikonen: It's the tip of the iceberg.

G. Sedola: It's the tip of the iceberg. It didn't turn out as successfully as we'd hoped. The water, the whole idea was, you notice the sloping sides of the fountain itself, this was to continue up in various jets. This was supposed to be a mass of water, which would continue up and salmon would be emerging up from this mass of water but for various reasons lack of funds and so on, the total effect was not really achieved at that time and water pressures and so on were not quite what they should have been so they are not going to be particularly successful but, from a point of view of a group of people who wanted to complete something on a voluntary basis, people contributing their weekends, I think it was extremely successful.

H. Poikonen: It was a team effort.

G. Sedola: It was a team effort. Where people came together, where the women cooked their spaghetti dinners and put on their ‘dos' in town, raise the money, and the men went out and utilized this money and ah, I think even at that time to get the two salmon themselves carved from granite, if you were to pay a person to do that it would probably cost something in the neighbourhood of $50,000 just to do the salmon alone. 

Most of the Italians who came through Nanaimo were in the first decade of the century prior to, say, 1910. Then there was a long period of time when very few people came from Italy. A lot of people came into the community from various parts of Canada. I think there's a major influx of people following World War II, ah there seems to have been another wave, which came in. But during the time I was growing up, I don't recall any families coming out to Canada directly from Italy.

H. Poikonen: Well, of course, there was a war on and until after the war I suppose [inaudible].

G. Sedola: Yes, but ah, most, as I say, came out in that first decade. Certainly in the 30's I can't recall any families, which came to Nanaimo from Italy.

H. Poikonen: Well that's a lot. You've given me a lot of information I didn't know myself and I'd like to thank you very much Gino.

G. Sedola: Well, thanks very much. There are a lot of things I can probably recall at another time but I hope you can find something on which you can base some questions. Perhaps I can recall some other things but if you get together with some of the older people from Nanaimo I'm sure they can give you a lot more.

H. Poikonen: Thanks so much.

Transcriber: The tape stopped and then the interview seems to have commenced again, perhaps to add more information.

H. Poikonen: But, most of the families you mention are from northern Italy.

G. Sedola: Yeah, ah, most of the families that are in Nanaimo came from the area surrounding Venice. My folks came as did the Cuffalos, the [Cornums?], the [inaudible] and so on, from some of the mountain valleys north of Italy, in the area of [Whittinger?] which is the largest city. Um, I think there were probably only one or two families that come from the southern areas of Italy.  Serianis were one I believe. Um, the rest, you probably noticed within the Italian group in Nanaimo you find a lot of for example of atypical Italians. Blond, blue eyed. My mother is blond, blue eyed. Not what one would consider a typical [Italian?]

H. Poikonen: The [Banders?]?

G. Sedola: I don't think the [Banders?] were Italians. The [Sadene's?], which are related to them, are Italian. Ray [Mallisa?], for example. They're taller, non-curly haired some blue eyed, blond, even some red heads in Nanaimo.

End of tape.