British Columbia

100-year-old Italian love letters reveal historic B.C. tragedy

Italian filmmaker Nicola Moruzzi retraces the steps of his great grandfather's final 30 months of life in Canada before he was killed working on a CPR tunnel in his new documentary Revelstoke: A Kiss in the Wind

CPR worker killed on the job in 1915 never made it home to meet his newborn daughter

For 100 years Angelo Conte's family didn't know what happened to him or why he never returned home to Italy after setting off to work in British Columbia.

The first clues came in a pile of 100-year-old love letters sent to his wife decades ago and found stashed and forgotten in a closet in Italy.

When Italian filmmaker Nicola Moruzzi read them, he was compelled to retrace the steps of his great grandfather who came to Canada in 1913 to work. 

"The letters that he wrote to his wife, my great grandmother, were completely lost for 100 years. My grandmother owned them but she didn't want to read them because it was too painful for her," Moruzzi told Rebecca Zandbergen, host of CBC's Radio West.

The resulting documentary, Revelstoke: A Kiss in the Wind, reveals details surrounding Conte's fate.

The film follows Moruzzi as he pieces together the final 30 months of Conte's life through B.C., from Vancouver to Kamloops and on to Revelstoke where he was killed while working on Canadian Pacific  Railway's Connaught Tunnel. He was 28.

Back in Italy Conte's wife had given birth to their daughter but never heard from her husband again.

Moruzzi said he was able to pinpoint — and eventually visit — the exact location along the CPR where Conte was killed on Oct. 15, 1915.

"It was pretty intense — pretty emotional — discovering these documents, meeting the people, finding these traces," said Moruzzi.

Italian migration in 1900s

​Harsh economic conditions in Italy that started in the 1860s sparked a diaspora of Italian men to South America, the United States and to a lesser extent, Canada to find work.

Conte left Italy in 1913 and landed in Vancouver. He began to write the letters to his wife immediately, always signing off with "Yours forever, Angelo."

He was one of about 60,000 Italian immigrants who came to Canada between 1900 and 1913, according to the Canadian Museum of Immigration.

Many of them supplied a steady stream of inexpensive labour for the CPR. Many intended to save money and return home after a season or two.

It's unknown how many workers were killed on the job, but some accounts estimate between 600 and 1,000 Chinese labourers were killed while working on the railway. 

Archives and imagination

It took Moruzzi three years and three trips to B.C. to complete the research and filming.

With very little to go on, Moruzzi worked with BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum and found documents that showed Conte's death had been recorded and investigated.

He also found the neighbourhood his great grandfather lived in while in Vancouver. The post office that Conte mailed letters from in Kamloops is still standing.

But the mystery itself posed technical challenges for the filmmaker.

"Professionally speaking it was a real challenge because it's trying to tell a story of someone whose images you don't have, who you're just trying to imagine, you're just trying to reconstruct him out of little pieces of documents, pictures," said Moruzzi.

Ahead of its B.C. tour this month, the film was nominated for best documentary at the L'accademia del Cinema Italiano's David di Donatello film awards.

"I think the success of the film is also made through the people that we met and I like to think of it as a collection of portraits of the people that helped us along the way."

Revelstoke: A Kiss in the Wind, is showing in Vancouver, Victoria, Kamloops and Revelstoke in May.