Monday, September 27, 2010

Exposing the Dark Underbelly of History

Emma LaJeunesse, Opera Star, known as Madame Albani.

I happen to have a paper theatre bill on hand for a performance of Madame Albani, unknown year. It is from the Nicholson Collection. Maybe one of the Nicholson women attended...Well, very likely. They attended operas in Richmond, so their letters reveal.

Madame Albani wasn't Italian, she was a French Canadian from Chambly, (last epoque's Celine Dion) who made it big and was performing at Covent Garden in the late 1800's.

The Nicholson girls liked fine things, and I assume Italian Opera, was one of these fine things.

Italian lace too. Italian cheese, too. And in 1910, Edith mentions in a letter that she went to see Creatore and his Italian band, where she met Marion. That would be Giuseppe Creatore, an Italian American bandleader who was devoted to Italian opera.

This morning, as I continued researching background to Flo in the City, my book about a girl coming of age in the pivotal 1910 era in Montreal, based on the letters of I decided to enter the term "Italian" into Google News Archives, to see what came up for the Montreal Gazette.

I wanted to find out what feelings and images and ideas the word "Italian" evoked in the Nicholson girls in 1910.

(You see, a few blogs back I wrote about how the Immigration Policy of 1911 deliberately tried to dissuade Italians form immigrating to Canada . Despite this, they came, about 60,000 in the 1900-1910 and the same amount for 1910-1920. And they came to Montreal, mostly.)

The articles I read from 1908-1913, revealed a world of gangs (there was a sweep of an immigrant neighbourhood in 1908, where police randomly searched young Italian men for razors, knives and guns) and hard, life-threatening work. (Italian men, it seemed, worked at manual labour in dangerous jobs, where they sometimes (often) were injured or died. And if they went on strike or protested, they were fired en masse. Once 100 men were fired for protesting money being deducted off the paycheques, ostensibly medical charges.)

There were a lot of murders associated with Italians reported in the paper, usually gang or work related, but sometimes crimes of passion. And at least one Italian woman ( a recent arrival of 26 who worked first in a restaurant and then as a domestic) killed herself because her boyfriend's wife came over from Italy to join him.

Dr. Louis Laberge of the Montreal Health Department (who I have written about extensively) explained that this Italian (and Chinese) crime wave was cause by the stresses of tenement living. The Italians were living "Oriental style" with too many people crammed into one house. He wanted forced inspections.

So, Italians in Montreal had it hard, it seems. But still they came and became an integral part of our city.

And, then, once again I was led to a dark period in history (one that has been erased from the books). I found an interview with Maria Montessori, which led me to look up more on the "eugenics" movement.

Remember, the Italians who came here to start a new life, weren't the "elite." Immigrants never are. (The Nicholsons were descendants of the lowest of the low, Isle of Lewis Scots, cleared from the land.)

The Eugenics Movement, to put it crudely, was about eliminating inferior beings, mental defectives, criminals and even those swarthy Southern types. (No kidding.)

Some people say the inherent weaknesses in this position. One writer asks, "Would Shakespeare's illiterate parents have been permitted to procreate? And another person has an interesting take: "As long as men are attracted by beauty and women by strength, we need no eugenics movement." It's true, even in today's techno-age, the ideal couple isn't Bill and Melinda Gates. It's alway a super jock married to a super model.)

But many people, many people of social stature including one US President, thought the idea of sterilizing the inferior and testing would be couples was a great idea.

I suspect that the eugenics movement got moving because of the 'scary' wave of immigration to North America.

Anyway, here's a link to a 2003 book that tries to bring this story into the light.

I find it suspicious that the Stanford Binet test (IQ TEST) was invented in 1912, at the height of the eugenics craze. So does the author of this book.

The idea of IQ is sacred today. (Just the other day a news report said that manganese in Quebec water may be lowering children's IQ by six points. Oh my!)

But maybe IQ is a load of BS designed to promote the interests of one group over another. Maybe we've all been had...Of course, we'll never know, as it is the people with high IQ's who run the world by virtue of having done well in the school system, with the exception of very rich men who are given a pass... HMMMM.