Our Memories Are Here: Italian Heritage in Toronto

[I nostri ricordi sono qui: Il Patrimonio Culturale Italiano a Toronto]

Written by Tyson Brown

The Florentine Company, circa 1939. MHSO Collection, ITA-0013

Along with New York and Chicago, Toronto has been a primary destination for the Italian Diaspora in North America. Italian migration to the city began in the late 19th century and  drastically increased after World War II, leading to the establishment of a substantial community. The broader story of the Italian community of Toronto is complex and related to international events: changes that unfolded in Italy and Canada in the mid-20th century.

The late-19th century was a period of rapid political change in Italy. Failed land reforms after Italian unification had the effect of leaving many people landless, un- or under-employed, poor and with limited social mobility. Given these dire conditions, many Italians looked abroad for new opportunities and thus began a wave of emigration that would bring some of them all the way to Toronto.

Italian labourers laying cobblestones on King Street in 1903. MHSO Collection, ITA-200372

From the 1890s and into the early-20th century, there was employment available in northern Ontario (and elsewhere in the province) in the form of railway construction and maintenance, in mining, agriculture and similar sectors. Italian men could come to Canada using the “padrone” or labour agent system – they paid private agents who arranged their travel documents, transportation, housing and employment in Canada. During winter, many of them made their way to various towns and cities across Ontario in order to find seasonal employment when their often isolated construction camps or similar sites closed because of winter weather conditions. For Toronto, their arrival coincided with major industrial developments taking place including the expansion of electrical companies, breweries, distilleries, metal manufacturers and other industries. This growth of the city meant numerous employment opportunities building streets and expanding transportation routes, digging sewers and working on construction projects. For some Italian men, their previous experience with stonemasonry and excavations – either in Italy or in Canadian work sites –  matched the current demands and by 1915 there were approximately 12,000 Italians in Toronto.

Prior to the arrival of these Italian labourers there was already a small group of Italians in the city working as musicians, fruit vendors, bakers and craftsmen, selling their goods and services to a clientele predominately of British descent. The new wave of workers allowed for the gradual creation of new businesses, including restaurants, barbershops, tailors, shoemakers and food vendors, which began to appear on the streets of Toronto. Originally established in the 1880s, St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street, (renamed Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in 1908), became the primary center of faith for the small community living in The Ward (St. John’s Ward). As the community grew and the city expanded, Italians moved beyond The Ward. St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church at Dundas and Lansdowne Streets, St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church at Bloor and Dufferin Streets, St Agne’s Roman Catholic Church at Grace and College Streets, as well as St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church at Bathurst and Bloor Streets, all became centres of Italian communities.

From the turn of the 20th century until World War II, social clubs and benevolent societies were formed to serve important functions for Italians in Toronto. They provided health care, insurance, education and other forms of support at a time when there were limited social services available. One of these associations was the “Order Sons of Italy of Ontario” and their story in Toronto provides insight into how the experience of Torontonians of Italian descent changed with the onset of World War II.

When Canada fought alongside Italy during World War I a bond was forged between the two nations. Rising to power in Italy in the 1920s, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist government would eventually destabilize that relationship, but not before Mussolini played a positive role for the reputation of Italy and Italians abroad. Italian newspapers in the city kept the local community in touch with events unfolding in Europe. Some regarded the first signs of fascism within the Italian community in Toronto as a positive resurgence of pride in Italian culture. Mussolini himself was well-regarded internationally for bringing order and direction to Italy until, in the 1930s, his military aggression threatened other European nations, and by extension, Canada. Along with their country of origin, Torontonians of Italian descent came to be regarded with distrust and fear. Those who had previously supported Mussolini as a source of Italian national pride suddenly found that their support for fascism was a sign of dubious loyalty for Canadian authorities. During World War II, when Italy became an enemy of Canada, Italians in Canada suffered difficult consequences. Feared as potential enemy aliens, over 500 Italian Canadians were forcibly removed from their families and communities and sent to internment camps. Most were released within three years (some much sooner) and a small handful were detained until the end of the war.

Italian immigrant workers constructing a sewer. MHSO Collection/ITA-200373

Following the conclusion of World War II in 1945, a third wave of Italian immigration to Toronto began. During the period from the 1950s to the 1960s, 40% of all those who emigrated from Italy to Canada came to Toronto. Family sponsorship and changes to Canadian immigration policies facilitated this immigration and rapid economic growth provided the employment opportunities. From a pre-war population of approximately 16,000, the Italian community in Toronto grew to 300,000 by the 1980s. In the midst of this wave of immigration, Italians in the city would redefine their place in the city’s cultural fabric.

Toronto’s Italian community proudly took centre stage in the city in 1982, almost a decade after the end of mass emigration from Italy. In that year, the Italian football team won the World Cup and Italian Torontonians made their way to St. Clair Avenue to celebrate. It was an event that captured the long history of Italians in the city and which symbolized their proud move from the cultural periphery to the cultural mainstream of Toronto.

Waves of Italian immigration have played a key role in the development of Toronto into a modern metropolis, contributing to the physical expansion of the city as well as to the formation of its new identity as an international hub of cultural diversity.

Sources

“Chiaroscoro Italians in Toronto from 1815 – 1915”, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1984), pg. 44-49.
Kenneth Bagnell, Canadese: A Portrait of Italian Canadians, (Butterworths, 1989).
John Zucchi, The Italians Immigrants of the St John’s Ward, 1875-1915: patterns of settlement and neighbourhood formation,  (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981)
John Zucchi, “Italians Hometown Settlements and the Development of an Italian Community in Toronto”, 1875-1945”, Gathering Place: Peoples and Neighbourhoods of Toronto, 1834-1945, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985).
John Zucchi, ‘Development of a National Identity’, Italians in Toronto, (McGill-Queens University, 1988).

Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.

This entry was posted in Heritage Diversity Stories and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.