Written by Tyson Brown
In 1501, Gaspar Corte-Real explored what was likely the Newfoundland coast, earning the title of the first person of Portuguese descent to see Canada. It was not until the mid-20th century, however, that a strong Portuguese migration to this country, and to Toronto, would begin. The establishment of the Portuguese community then went hand in hand with the expansive growth of Toronto and the transformation of its cultural and political character during the post-WWII period.
Until the mid-20th century, Canadian immigration policy was selective of potential migrants based on race and national origin. Portugal was not a preferred country of origin, and as a result, prior to the Second World War, there were a very few people of Portuguese descent in Toronto. The records of their experiences are limited. The only official representative of Portugal in Toronto was an honorary member from the Portuguese consulate in New York City. Others stayed in, or passed through the city without much documentation.
All of this changed in the 1950s when a combination of push and pull factors created a large influx of Portuguese migration to Toronto. In 1955, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration brought around 500 migrants from the Azores Islands to Canada to help fill labour needs within the mining, railway and farming sectors of northern Ontario. After their initial work contracts expired, many of these Portuguese men made their way to larger cities, and Toronto became a primary destination. Here they would find temporary housing and seasonal work, and here they would lay the foundations of the city’s Portuguese community.
Around this same period, political and economic factors in Portugal pushed many to consider emigration to another country to begin a new life. The agriculture-based economy of Portugal was suffering from stagnation and the pressure was increasing to look abroad for work. Emigration was particularly attractive for men who were facing limited social mobility and employment opportunities, military conscription and various forms of civil oppression.
During the 1950s, the Portuguese, like other newly arrived immigrants in the city, found affordable housing in older areas of the city. Also like others, they settled in parts of the city with religious centres that were closely affiliated with their own denomination. The Kensington Market and Alexandra Park areas, in particular, became strong Portuguese neighbourhoods. St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Bathurst and Adelaide Streets, built in 1899 to serve Irish parishioners, became one Portuguese centre of faith, resulting in the renaming of the land around it as “Portugal Square”. Other Portuguese migrants attended Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Roman Catholic Church on McCaul Street, St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church on Grace and Dundas Streets, and St. Helen’s Roman Catholic Church on Dundas Street at Lansdowne Avenue. All were already well-established churches when the Portuguese arrived, and all would become vital, multi-purpose institutions at the heart of Portuguese neighbourhoods.
A primary example of the impact of Portuguese settlement patterns can be seen in one of Toronto’s most famous and historic neighbourhoods, Kensington Market. The older Jewish community of Toronto had previously settled in this area and had introduced the tradition of outdoor markets and lively activity on the streets. Given the location of Catholic churches close to the market, Portuguese migrants gravitated to this area and over a few decades, left their mark on this unique part of Toronto’s cityscape. Homes on Augusta Avenue, Baldwin Street and Nassau Street were transformed with gardens on front lawns and with freshly painted brick facades. Sousa’s restaurant, the Portuguese Bookstore and an important association known as the First Portuguese Canadian Club were established in the neighbourhood during these years. For Kensington market, this tradition of receiving new immigrants would continue after the Jewish and Portuguese influence on the neighborhood had waned, as Asian, Caribbean and Middle Eastern cultures have continued to make Kensington a center of diversity and a microcosm of culturally diverse Toronto.
From the starting points of local churches and the Kensington Market, the Portuguese community grew in size, with a large number of immigrants arriving in Toronto as sponsored family members. The community expanded into the Bloor and Dufferin area, further west to Lansdowne Avenue and eventually to the suburbs as part of the construction booms of the 1970s and 1980s.
Along the way, the Portuguese in Toronto made fundamental contributions to the city’s infrastructure, and to its culture. Immigration to Toronto coincided with a post-World War II development boom, itself a response to nearly 15 years of pent-up demand due to the Depression and the war, as well as to the post-war population boom. Portuguese men found work building the new infrastructure and many new buildings that would soon re-define Toronto’s landscape. This transformative phase of Toronto’s history, in fact, was intricately connected to the city’s growing diversity. While Portuguese men played an important role in construction, Portuguese women played an important role in building maintenance.
The construction of downtown high-rise buildings in the decades following World War II attested to the arrival of Toronto as a modern, international, economic centre in Canada. The Portuguese community was part of this process. Their struggles with workplace safety, health care access, long hours and low wages would result in changes that have shaped the city today.
Equally significant, the Portuguese community played an important role in the implementation of new policies to celebrate “Multiculturalism” after 1971. The First Portuguese Canadian Club, Portuguese teachers and Portuguese community leaders were deeply involved with the efforts of the federal government and the City of Toronto to deal with issues of equity, and to recognize and support cultural diversity. The Portuguese Canadian Historical Museum is a living example of the optimism and expanding cultural awareness that shaped the city during this important period of its past. This museum demonstrates a remarkable commitment and investment of time, energy, and resources to preserve, document and celebrate the great diversity of Toronto.
Grace Anderson and J. Davis, ‘Portuguese Immigrant Women in Canada’, from David Higgs, Portuguese Migration in a Global Perspective, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1990), pg 136-44.
Domingos Marques and Joao, ‘Portuguese Immigrant in Toronto’, Polyphony: Toronto’s People, Vol. 6, No. 1, (Spring/Summer, 1984), pg. 44-49.
Fernando Nunes, ‘Portuguese Canadian Women, ‘Problems and Prospects’, Polyphony: Women and Ethnicity, Vol. 8, No. 1-2, (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1986), pg. 61-66.
Alan De Sousa, ‘The First Portuguese Canadian Club’, Polyphony: Sports and Ethnicity, Vol. 7, No. 1 (Spring/Summer, 1985), pg.65-66.
Kensington: A Need Study, Toronto Planning Board, 1976, MHSO Collection
Olivia Ward, The Portuguese, Toronto Star, Nov 17, 1985.
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.