Written by Riccardo Lo Monaco
The history of Italians in Toronto, like that of many immigrants in this city, could be narrated using stories of strife and struggle. Troublesome times have been so frequent in Toronto’s immigrant past that the moments of happiness can easily be overlooked. Sometimes, however, a story of triumph is so definitive it must not be omitted. In Toronto, where Italian immigrants had endured discrimination and a crisis of identity for most of a century, an Italian victory in the 1982 World Cup of Soccer provided an opportunity for them to proclaim their self-confidence and assert their equality in Canada. The resulting victory celebrations on the streets of Toronto remain one of the most important moments in the history of Italians in this city.
“New Canadians,” as Italian immigrants were often termed, faced numerous difficulties and endured various forms of racial discrimination and intolerance in their efforts to integrate into society. Many of them had arrived believing Canada would be the answer to all of their problems, not anticipating widespread unemployment issues, housing shortages, and language problems. Canadian professionals held a set of expectations for the immigrant workers they employed; they wanted committed, docile, and hard-working labourers. Italians found themselves caught between conflicting desires to preserve their Italian identity and to adopt the Canadian identity required of them.
By 1961, over half of the Italian population of Ontario had settled within urban Toronto. The area along College Street, between Ossington and Bathurst Streets was so heavily populated by Italians that it became known as Little Italy. This small area boasted upwards of 16,000 Italian residents who patronized the Italian-owned and operated storefronts, bars, and social clubs that replaced earlier shops in the area. There, Italian men interacted with other Italian men; playing card games and discussing their struggles, often in the Italian language.
On July 11, 1982, around 300,000 people flocked to Toronto’s Italian neighbourhoods to celebrate the first Italian FIFA World Cup of Soccer tournament victory in 44 years. Such a large gathering of people—ethnic or not—had never taken place in Canada to celebrate a sporting event. To put this into perspective, just ten days earlier, the Toronto Sun newspaper had called a Canada Day gathering in Queen’s Park “massive”, with its mere 30,000 celebrators.By 1982, a series of factors had begun to build up and cooperate with one another to provide Italians living in Canada with a renewed sense of confidence. The introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed, for all Canadians, many previously neglected liberties. Many Italians in Canada had experienced economic success and upward mobility with an increased stability in living conditions, work, and education. Many of these advances were due to the minority ethnic groups that fought in a series of human rights campaigns after World War II and catalyzed the elimination of discriminatory laws in Canada. At the same time, this growing acceptance of cultural pluralism created an opportune moment for Italian-Canadians to celebrate spontaneously in public when the Italian national team impressed on the international stage at the World Cup of Soccer.
The unprecedented and definitive size of the audience is not the only reason why this story has become legendary; it is also remembered as commendably non-violent and remarkably political. Italians continue to boast that they celebrated peacefully and respectfully, thereby demonstrating the greatness of Italy.
The event also marked a key change to the gendered nature of fan culture. Soccer had traditionally belonged to the public sphere of recreational activities – men gathering in bars to watch or listen to games on closed circuit feeds imported from Europe. In 1982, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation televised the World Cup live for the first time ever in Canada. People could now follow the games from the privacy of their home. This encouraged women and children to watch the matches and participate in the post-tournament celebration. It transformed what was once an almost exclusively male domain into a family activity, devoid of the infamous violence and chaos that concurrently characterized the heavily male-dominated spectator culture in parts of Europe.
Italians also made their 1982 celebration political. The space where the celebration occurred was often contested throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when groups of Italian men would gather around transistor radios outside local espresso bars to listen to live broadcasts of soccer games from Italy and the police would order them to disperse, assuming they were participating in criminal activity. Taking to these same streets to celebrate the World Cup win was an effective way for Italians to reclaim a piece of public space for themselves, converting it into an Italian “place” and cementing their presence in Toronto as a major cultural force.
The realization of the Italian contribution to Canadian society was most evident when celebrators drove a dump truck covered in Italian flags up and down St. Clair Avenue West. They eventually parked the truck in the middle of the street as swarms of people engulfed it and prevented any traffic from flowing for the rest of the night. Not only did the truck serve as an excellent platform from which to wave gigantic Italian flags, it also symbolized the thriving construction industry in which so many Italians worked. It conveyed their immense pride over the notion that Italians had played a large part in developing the city of Toronto.
Italian-Canadian newspapers wasted little time converting the events of this celebration into political stories about Italian excellence and the success of ‘official multiculturalism’. Likewise, Canadian journalists portrayed Italian-Canadians positively and played into the attractiveness of Prime Minister Trudeau’s multiculturalism policies. They noted the eccentricity of the party, the wonderful colours, the joy, the festive noise, and above all, the general sense of well-being experienced. But they also mentioned moments when small scuffles broke out between different cultural groups—facts that the Italian-Canadian journalists seemed to overlook as they aggressively discussed the significance of a sense of peacefulness.
It can be argued that the factual occurrences of July 12, 1982 are not as important as the memories held by those who were there, however deeply conditioned or affected those memories have been over the years by the media and the mythical retelling of stories associated with that event. A collective memory has grown out of this process and superseded the existing factual records; it is sustained by the entire Italian-Canadian community and remains one of the most important moments in their history.
The 1982 FIFA World Cup is a pivotal part of the history of Italians living in Toronto. It marks the point in time when they realized their own worth in the world and in Canadian society. It also sparked a celebratory event that introduced Italians to one another as a peaceful, civilized, hardworking, and proud people – integral and indispensable to Toronto, and every bit a part of the newly budding multicultural nation of Canada. In this case, the celebration matters more than the game that inspired it. Toronto has not been the same since that extraordinary day. Now flags wave every four years in recognition of the World Cup, not just for Italy, but for all nationalities who have found a home in Canada.
Frank Colantonio, From the Ground Up: An Italian Immigrants Story, (University of Toronto Press, 1993).
Nicholas DeMaria Harney, Eh Paesan!, Being Italian in Toronto, (University of Toronto Press, 1998)
Franca Iacovetta, Such Hardworking People: Italians in Postwar Toronto, (McGill-Queens University Press, 1993)
Jordan Stanger-Ross, “An Inviting Parish: Community without Locality in Postwar Italian Toronto”, Canadian History Review, 87, 3 (September 2006), pp. 381-407.
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.