Anselmo (Sam) Bortolotti: An Early Leader in the Italo Canadian Community

By Anna Gora, Margot Felix, Paula Tissot, Elda Allen and Jennifer Allen

Some new immigrants take time to adjust to their new environments. Others such as Anselmo “Sam” Bortolotti do not. Even as a newcomer to Canada, he wasted no time becoming involved with the local Italian community. His commitment to helping Italian Canadians kept him active even at challenging times, such as during the Second World War.

Anselmo was born in Maiano, Udine, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Italy, on September 18, 1897 to Domenico Bortolotti and Louisa Riva. His father died when he was only five years old, leaving his mother to raise him and his brother Pietro and sister Assunta. There was no school in the family’s community. A teacher would travel between the regional villages and educate those who could afford to pay for schooling. His mother, with some difficulty, always managed to pay the tuition. He received minimal education as teachers had large territories to cover and travel was difficult, making visits infrequent and sporadic. Because of this, he highly valued education. His passion for learning continued throughout his life and never stopped until the day he died in February 1990. He was a life-long learner and read extensively, including the Bible and books about politics, history, science and philosophy. He loved to discuss and debate any subject, any time with anyone. He also loved classical music, especially Italian operas.

At the age of nine, Anselmo left home to work in Austria-Hungary, where one of his uncles served as mayor of a town and also owned the local brickyard. This enabled him to learn the art of brick work at an early age and this skill continued to serve him well in his adult life.

From 1914 to 1918, he served in the First World War, in the Quinto Gennio Minatori - an engineering corps of the Royal Italian Army. In October 1920, he immigrated to Ottawa to join his sister and her husband. Upon arriving, he found there was little work available. His first job was shoveling snow for twenty cents an hour. Soon after, Anselmo found a seasonal job with Merkley’s brickyard now the site of Billings Bridge Shopping Centre. An interesting anecdote that he liked to tell revealed the working conditions of that time. During the winter, when it was bitterly cold, the men would arrive at the brickyard early in the morning, at 6:00 am, only to be told “Sorry boys, no work today. It’s too cold for the horses” who pulled the sleighs loaded with bricks. In those times no work, no pay!

In 1925, he married Giuseppina D’Inca, whom he had met during World War I in her village in Belluno and had carried on a long distance courtship.

Anselmo’s lack of formal education left him to learn many things on his own. He became keenly interested in developing and sustaining the cultural interests of the Italian community in Canada. He co-founded the Societa Educativa di Ottawa for that purpose on December 5, 1926. This society held conferences, lectures, and various cultural and educational activities including language and music lessons for both children and adults in the Italian community.

This same spirit also inspired him to open with Francesco Cosenza, a small tile company, Canadian Tile and Terrazzo.Unfortunately, the economic crisis during the 1930s forced the company, like so many others at the time, to close. It was a very difficult time with a wife and three children to support. Yet, he refused to accept social welfare. He put his skills to work and found odd jobs, such as repairing sidewalks and chimneys. Luckily, he managed to secure a contract installing tiles at the Chateau Laurier, a Canadian National (CN) Railway Hotel. This income enabled him to pay off his debts as well as buy a house and a car. All this during the Great Depression. In 1932 he was hired as a permanent employee. He worked as a tile-setter for CN Hotels travelling from the Maritimes to the western provinces until his retirement in 1962.

The Depression Era also saw tensions grow between the Italian community in Ottawa and local clergy who disapproved of Italians sending their children to public schools as Sam’s did. Soon articles were published disclaiming the aims of the Societa Educativa di Ottawa.

In the conflict between fascist and anti-fascists in Ottawa, Anselmo, a passionate anti-fascist, was a central figure. Together with 29 other local Italian veterans of the First World War, he organized “L’Associazione Excombattenti di Ottawa”, of which he was president for a number of years. He opposed orders from Rome that War Veterans’ Associations be dominated by fascism.

His concern for the welfare of Italian immigrants directed him to help found the Order of Italo-Canadians, a fraternal benefit insurance society in the Province of Ontario, where he served as Secretary, Official Agent and General Oganiser. In 2008, the Order celebrates its 80th Anniversary. The Order of Italo-Canadians provided many services and was active in helping the Italian community, including the provision of baskets of food and gifts for the children at Christmas and during hard times.

The arrival of the Second World War presented great challenges, especially among the Italian Canadian community. With increasing political unrest, the community soon became divided. Anselmo was falsely accused of being a member of the Communist Party because of his strong anti-fascist stand. Given the times and prevailing views, Anselmo, and by extension, his family, experienced serious and lasting repercussions because of his political beliefs. One daughter was forced to leave her job in a law office, while many years later, his other daughter was denied the opportunity to teach on a Canadian Forces base in Europe.

Despite these difficulties, he remained active in the Italian-Canadian community, providing assistance to those in need. During World War II, as an active member of the Order of Italo-Canadians, Anselmo was instrumental in working with others to raise funds to purchase two ambulances which were sent to Italy. In 1946-47, he assisted in the organization of the “Canadian Aid to Italy” fund, which raised money to purchase medical supplies for Italian civilians. He also worked along with other members of the Italian community to obtain the release of those Italians unjustly sent to Canadian concentration camps.

During the first post-war wave of immigration, Anselmo sponsored and helped many immigrants to settle in Canada homeland. These new Canadians, many whom he mentored, became and remained life-long friends.

He also actively participated on committees which were organized to collect funds for disasters in Italy, such as the Vajon Dam disaster in the Italian Alps and the south Italy and Fruili earthquakes.

  • In 1954 he became President of The Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Workers Union - Local 270, holding this position for 6 consecutive years. He remained active in the union until his retirement.
  • In 1967, he was awarded the Centennial Medal by the Canadian Government “In recognition of his valuable service to the nation”.
  • In 1969, he was a driving force in founding the Ottawa Chapter of the Fogolar Furlan of Ottawa.

With Rose and Gino Tiezzi, he founded the Ottawa Senior Citizens Group, (Gruppo Anziani di Ottawa), taking his turn as President and remaining an active and contributing participant.

  • In 1986, he was awarded Cavaliere dell’Ordine Al Merito della Republica Italiana. The same year, he was also selected as Person of Year by the Italian Canadian Business and Professional Association of Ottawa.

During his life he traveled extensively, visiting much of North America, Europe and Africa. He visited Italy many times over the years, but said he would never return there permanently because Canada was his home.

Anselmo and Guiseppina Bortolotti had four children: Alma, Nello Leo and Elda, eight grandchildren and three great granchildren.

He was a socialist with his vision rooted in protecting the poor, working class members of society. He joined the CCF at its inception, which became the NDP and was an active member of the party until his death.

Anselmo remained true to himself and dedicated to social justice and human rights issues throughout his long life.

Interviewed by Professor Filippo Salvatore of Concordia University for the book entitled: Fascism and the Italians of Montreal An Oral History: 1922-1945, Anselmo was asked this question: “What is the quality you admire the most in an individual, and what principle should a young person be faithful to?” he replied:

“Honesty is the best quality a human being can have. I have always respected that, even among our fascist opponents. If a person switches sides and betrays one time, he can and will betray another time. So my advice to people is: be morally honest, and everybody will respect you. That is the principle that has always guided my actions. Once I was convinced of the validity of the ideals of socialism, I always believed in them, in spite of verbal and physical threats and the moral blackmail I was exposed to.”

Cav. Anselmo Bortolotti 1897-1990