The Italians Who Built Toronto

Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950–1980

by Stefano Agnoletto (Author)
©2014 Monographs XVIII, 360 Pages


After World War II, hundreds of thousands of Italians emigrated to Toronto. This book describes their labour, business, social and cultural history as they settled in their new home. It addresses fundamental issues that impacted both them and the city, including ethnic economic niching, unionization, urban proletarianization and migrants’ entrepreneurship.
In addressing these issues the book focuses on the role played by a specific economic sector in enabling immigrants to find their place in their new host society. More specifically, this study looks at the residential sector of the construction industry that, between the 1950s and the 1970s, represented a typical economic ethnic niche for newly arrived Italians. In fact, tens of thousands of Italian men found work in this sector as labourers, bricklayers, carpenters, plasterers and cement finishers, while hundreds of others became contractors, subcontractors or small employers in the same industry. This book is about these real people. It gives voice to a community formed both by entrepreneurial subcontractors who created companies out of nothing and a large group of exploited workers who fought successfully for their rights. In this book you will find stories of inventiveness and hope as well as of oppression and despair. The purpose is to offer an original approach to issues arising from the economic and social history of twentieth-century mass migrations.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • 1.1 ‘If One Were to Write a Labour and Business History of Postwar Italian Toronto’
  • 1.2 Research hypotheses
  • 1.3 Sources, methodology and structure
  • Chapter 2: Post World War II Toronto: a favourable yet contradictory setting for Italian newcomers
  • 2.1 Toronto ‘the Good’
  • 2.2 Social changes, demographic trends, economic prosperity and governance strategies in post-WWII Toronto
  • 2.3 Building the ‘vertical mosaic’ of the multicultural Canada
  • 2.4 The ethnic mosaic of post-WWII multicultural Toronto
  • 2.5 Appendix
  • Chapter 3: The Italian Community
  • 3.1 The origins of the community before WWII: from a community of male sojourners to a permanent settlement
  • 3.2 The ‘Italian invasion’ of post-WWII Toronto: the ‘ordering in bulk’ system and migration chains
  • 3.3 From peasants to urban wage earners in ethnic niches
  • 3.4 Appendix
  • Chapter 4: Italians in Toronto: a successful history?
  • 4.1 Becoming Italians in Toronto: networking, class and gender
  • 4.2 ‘Italians help Italians’: the Canadian welfare state, the communitarian welfare system, and political militancy
  • 4.3 From downtown to the suburbs
  • Chapter 5: The Italian niche: the ‘jungle’ of the construction industry
  • 5.1 ‘You know, Italians build houses’. Opportunities and barriers at the beginning of the Italian niche
  • 5.2 Exploited workers and Italian contractors in the ‘jungle’ of an ethnic-capitalist labour market
  • 5.3 ‘A shovel, a truck, two or three paesani’. Artisans, workers or entrepreneurs? Italian contractors and employers
  • 5.4 A glocal interpretation of the origins of an economic ethnic niche
  • 5.5 Appendix
  • Chapter 6: Sciopero! The processes of unionization and the 1960–1961 strikes
  • 6.1 Challenging the exploitation: attempts at unionization in the 1950s
  • 6.2 Italian workers organize themselves: the Brandon Union Group
  • 6.3 ‘Canadian wages, Canadian hours!’ The turning point of the 1960 strike
  • 6.4 The 1961 strike and the Goldenberg Commission
  • Chapter 7: The ‘Italian way’. Unionization and class conflicts in the 1960s and the 1970s
  • 7.1 The end of the Brandon Union Group and the ‘normalization’ of Italian unionism (1962–1963)
  • 7.2 The Industrial Standards Act campaign (1963): a new union strategy
  • 7.3 The ‘concrete forming campaign’ and the ‘union wars’ (1965–1973)
  • 7.4 Portraits of industrial relations in an ethnic niche
  • Chapter 8: Structure vs identity? An overview of the literature and theoretical frameworks
  • 8.1 Urban market economies and immigrants in North America: the key issues
  • 8.2 Culture vs economics? The origins of economic ethnic niches
  • 8.3 Migrant workers and unionization
  • 8.4 Ethnicity, class and ‘niching’. An interpretative hypothesis
  • Conclusions
  • Archives and Libraries
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

| 1 →



1.1 ‘If one were to write a labour and business history of postwar Italian Toronto’

Nowadays Toronto ranks as one of the most important Italian cities outside Italy, as hundreds of thousands of people in the metropolitan area are descendants of immigrants from Italy. The vast majority of Italian immigrants reached Toronto during the great migration, which followed World War II (WWII). In fact, as the historian John Zucchi has documented, before WWII the Italian community of Toronto had never been large and in 1941 it stood at fewer than 18,000 people.1 It was in the 1950s that Toronto emerged as an important destination for Italian immigrants. Between 1951 and 1961 close to 90,000 Italians settled in Toronto, while in the following decade 72,000 more arrived.2 They were southern Italians, in particular former peasants, who dominated the post WWII influx of Italians to Toronto, but there were also artisans and merchants as well as northern Italians.3 The greater part of them came from a rural background and experienced in Toronto their first contact with an urban capitalist society. This book aims to describe their history.

This is not the first book on the history of Italians in Toronto. In fact, the history of twentieth-century Italian immigration to Toronto has been widely investigated. In particular the literature has focused on the social and cultural history of the Italian community and its identity. On these issues, one should first mention the many pioneering works by Robert Harney who, between the 1970s and the 1990s, was the first historian to provide complex pictures of Italian Torontonians and the formation of the Little Italies.4 In particular, his essay ‘If One Were to Write a History ← 1 | 2 → of Postwar Toronto Italia’ represents a milestone for studies of Italian Torontonians.5

Before Harney’s work, there were the research projects carried out between the 1960s and the 1980s by Clifford Jansen,6 which focused mainly on the institutional and organizational characteristics of the community, as well as on the process of assimilation into the host society.

Another author who has played an important role since the 1970s has been Frank Sturino.7 His books and articles have covered a wide range of subjects such as migration chains, politics, gender roles, mobility, and family histories.

In 1985 a turning point was volume 7 (no. 2) of the journal Polyphony: The Bulletin of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, edited by Robert F. Harney. This special issue was entirely dedicated to the history of the Italian community of Toronto. It contained the introductory essay ‘How to Write a History of Postwar Toronto Italia’ by Harney himself, and many other articles on specific aspects of immigrants’ experience. It represented the first collective attempt at proposing a history of Italians in Toronto.

In the same decade interesting articles and books on a wide range of specific issues were published. There were the descriptions of Italian community social life published by Gianni Grohovaz,8 while Roberto Perin9 studied religion-related issues and the impact of ethnic identity. In the following years Perin published articles and essays that focused on the issue of the internment of Italians during WWII, a controversial and fundamental topic for the history of Italians in Canada.10 His studies were related to the work of authors such as Bruti Liberati11 and Angelo Principe,12 who have mainly focused on the political and cultural aspects of the community’s history, with specific attention paid to the fascist period.

At the end of the 1980s, the stimulating book by John Zucchi13 on the pre WWII period emphasized the role played by migration chains and regional identities in the building of Toronto’s Italian community. More recently, Jordan Stanger Ross’s book14 on the post WWII decades offers in-depth pictures of the Italian community with a focus on ethnicity-related issues based on a new interpretation of the role played by ‘Italianity’ and its persistence within the community itself.

← 2 | 3 →

Another scholar who has studied extensively the history of Italians in Toronto is Gabriele Scardellato. In particular his works have focused on the processes of settlement of Italian immigrants, the history of the Little Italy in College Street and the experience of the ‘Order of the Sons of Italy of Ontario’.15 Scardellato has also contributed greatly to the collection of primary sources (oral and written) on the history of Italians in Toronto, in particular those stored at the Multicultural History Society of Ontario (MHSO),16 as well as compiling the fundamental Italian-Canadian Studies Bibliography for the Mariano A. Elia Chair at York University.17

Also worthy of attention are the works by Lydio F. Tomasi18 on the demographic profile of the Italian community, Adriana Sua19 on the history of the Centro Organizzativo Scuole Tecniche Italiane (COSTI), the leading Italian association in Toronto, Giuliana Colalillo20 on the Italian family, and Nicholas DeMaria Harney21 on Italian culture and settlement. Finally, the evocative portrait photographs by Vincenzo Pietropaolo are noteworthy for their significance.22

The labour history of Toronto’s Italian community after WWII has not been neglected. A first important work was by Samuel Sidlofsky with his PhD thesis submitted in 1969 at the University of Toronto, ‘Post-War Immigrants in the Changing Metropolis, with Special Reference to Toronto’s Italian Population’, which unfortunately remains unpublished.23 His in-depth research project on the experience of Italian workers in the construction industry proposed a descriptive approach based on a large number of primary sources. Although Sidlofsky’s work did not consider important issues such as unionization or ethnicity, it provided a first significant look at the labour history of Italian immigrants that opened the way for future research.

Since the end of the 1980s Franca Iacovetta has written an impressive number of articles on gender, labour and social issues.24 Her groundbreaking book, Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto, published in 1992, on the social history of first-generation (1950s) Italian immigrants, represents a landmark in the history of the Italian working class in Toronto.25

During the last twenty years, published memoirs have provided helpful and valuable new narratives about Italian labour history in Toronto. In particular, published autobiographies of some trade union leaders ← 3 | 4 → in Toronto’s construction industry, such as Marino Toppan or Franco Colantonio and John Stefanini, provide interesting ‘insider’ overviews of Italian workers’ experience in this sector.26 A short but very effective picture of Italian union experience in Toronto’s construction industry at the beginning of the 1960s is found in the introduction to Toppan’s memoir written by Angelo Principe.27

However, issues related to labour, union and business history still need further investigation. As Roberto Perin emphasized at the end of the 1980s, Italian-Canadians have been presented traditionally in the literature as reluctant to engage in the dynamics of the industrial system.28 Since this kind of interpretation is still influential, there are few studies of the labour and business history of Italian-Canadian communities. As a result, more consideration has to be paid to the process of urban proletarianization and unionization undergone by the Italian community. Similarly more attention has to be given to entrepreneurship and the process of the formation of Italian ethnic niches in the labour and business market.

In particular, as far as Italians in post-WWII Toronto are concerned, some important issues have been neglected by the literature. For example, the birth and growth of economic ethnic niches (e.g. in the construction industry), the history of the unionization of the Italian working class (with the exception of Iacovetta and Principe’s works on the limited period of the 1960–1961 strikes), as well as the history of hundreds of Italian entrepreneurs (narrated only in Sidlofsky’s descriptive thesis), have largely been ignored. Moreover, little attention has been paid to the role played by structural macro social and economic factors on the process of urban proletarianization experienced by thousands of Italian immigrants in Toronto during the 1950s and the 1960s.

This study therefore focuses on these aspects and addresses fundamental issues such as Italian immigrants’ niching, unionization, urban proletarianization and entrepreneurship. In this perspective, this book is the first attempt to propose a labour and business history of the Italian community in Toronto since the 1950s to the beginnings of the 1980s, that is, the period of the parabola from a poor and marginalized community to an economically succesful one. In order to do that, it also looks at key and closely related issues such as neighbourhood life, ethnic, family and ← 4 | 5 → kinship networks and settlement strategies, as well as the legal and economic framework in which Italian immigrants operated.

From this perspective, this investigation addresses and analyses a list of key questions. How did a mass of former peasants, unskilled workers, artisans and merchants become urban wage-earners or small business entrepreneurs in a capitalist society? How did the process of unionization work? How did an economic ethnic niche develop? What role did ‘ethnicity’ play in the processes of both urban proletarianization and unionization and entrepreneurship? What made immigrant unionization and entrepreneurship successful or a failure? What other factors impinged on these processes? Lastly, what impact did these processes have on the host society?

In addressing these questions, the book draws on the ‘new immigration history’ approach that has provided a significantly innovative method in the field of labour history of migration.29 Among other things, this approach emphasizes the national context as a key factor in understanding the relation between labour and immigration.30 In keeping with the ‘new social history’, new immigration history has, since the 1960s, proposed a different approach to the study of the relations between immigrants and the host society. Immigrants have become the object of investigation not merely as passive newcomers in the host society, but also as actors in the process of transformation of the host society itself.31 In this framework, the next chapters also describe the bidirectional relations between the Italian immigrants and the changing reality of Toronto.

This book focuses on the role played by a specific industry in enabling immigrants to find their place in the new host society. More specifically, my research has looked at the residential construction industry that, between the 1950s and the 1970s, represented a typical economic ethnic niche for the Italian community. In fact, tens of thousands of Italian males found work in this sector as bricklayers, labourers, carpenters, plasterers and cement finishers, while hundreds of others became small employers in the same industry. In the words of Pio Drudi, a former Italian construction worker, this book is mainly about the Italian people who ‘costruì Toronto in lungo e in largo’ [built the length and breadth of Toronto].32 The analysis of the cultural and structural factors that were the bases of the Italian niche of the construction industry is the central point of this study.

← 5 | 6 →

It was in this industry that the process of urban proletarianization, unionization as well as ethnicization of thousands of Italian workers developed. Nevertheless, it was not easily classifiable as a class niche. In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s, while their compatriots were the masses of workers who built Toronto, other members of the Italian community became employers in the same residential sector. They began as small subcontractors, but later some of them became the building companies or the firms of developers that even now still feature in the Toronto construction sector as an Italian niche. The factors affecting immigrant employers’ success and failure are also an object of study in this book.

This study draws from labour history, business history and cultural and identity history, as well as social history approaches. In particular, the combination of labour and business history makes this book an original effort in the literature. I have considered this an interesting approach in order to draw a wider and multidimensional description of the social and economic relationships, internal contradictions, class struggles and various factors that affected Italians in post-WWII Toronto.

The book investigates the correlated processes of urban proletarianization and unionization, which affected an unskilled mass of Italian workers, in particular in the Toronto construction industry. In addressing the process here termed ‘urban proletarianization’ the book looks at the impact of the experience of work in an urbanized market society on a previous pre-industrial identity rooted in town and regional background. The purpose is to figure out how thousands of former peasants, but also former artisans, coming from rural backgrounds often based on family economies, became wage-earning urban workers in the Toronto capitalist labour market. Here many men and women for the first time sold their labour power outside the home33 or tried to become self-employed. Moreover, the book focuses on the process of unionization, characterized by strong strikes and actions, which the Italian construction workers experienced. This process of unionization is investigated in the following pages as the result of a complex combination of ethnic and class identities.

This study has also focused on the ethnic transition that affected the Italian immigrants in Toronto. On arrival, they faced the Northern-European-Canadian identity of the city, which did not accommodate ← 6 | 7 → citizenship to those of Italian background. One aim of this book is to describe how Italian immigrants achieved a hybrid ‘Regional-Italian-European-Canadian’ identity combined with a new urban-proletarian self-representation. In particular, a research hypothesis concerns the role played by the process of men’s unionization as a strategic way for the Italian workers to become both ‘Canadians’ in relation to the native citizens and ‘Italians’ in their unified community. Moreover the book analyses the generational, gender- and class-related internal contradictions that affected the Italian community in its path to ‘Canadization’.

In seeking to capture the essence of all the processes investigated, I have identified certain dynamic relationships as major topics of the book. These are the relations between class belonging and ethnicity, and between immigrants and host society, as well as between immigrant militancy and trade unions. In particular, the research project has aimed to evaluate the meanings of structuralist and culturalist explanations of these relationships in the specific case study of the immigrant experience of Italians in post-WWII Toronto. Within this perspective, another particular feature of this book is to jointly consider interpretative patterns related to different fields such as economic specializations and niching, patterns of unionization, entrepreneurial studies, ethnic and migration models.

Moreover, I am aware that the focus on the ethnic niche of the residential construction industry has meant conducting a research project that can be considered a GBS (gender-based study) project, with all the implications and limitations this entails.34 In fact, the post WWII construction industry of Toronto was a mono-gender niche, with almost all the Italian workers being males. However, the role played by women in the building of the niche, through family, social and ethnic networks, cannot be underestimated. As a result, although the major focus is on the experiences of male workers, the investigation has paid attention to women’s roles and experiences within the Italian community.

Nevertheless the approach proposed in this GBS project is based on a dynamic idea of masculinity. Here masculinity is not considered as an unchangeable, fixed or unitary identity, but it is interpreted as a characteristic, which is influenced by other dynamic contexts such as class, ethnicity, race, ideology and so on. In this perspective, the Italian males who took ← 7 | 8 → part in the post-WWII Toronto construction industry are not interpreted as a homogeneous or monolithic group, since their masculinity interacted with the other identities that featured in the experience of this mass of workers and employers.35

1.2 Research hypotheses

This is a study of the cultural and structural factors that affected the processes of both urban proletarianization and economic specialization as well as the unionization and entrepreneurship of migrant groups. In particular, the focus of the book on the experience of Italian immigration to post-WWII Toronto as a transition from different social identities to others (class and/or ethnic identities) locates this research in the wider literature on the characteristics and the dynamics of Western capitalism in the twentieth century.

The book contributes to this debate by testing various interpretative hypotheses. Firstly it considers the role played by ethnicity by pondering the following assumption: it was the transition from being peasants, with a local or regional identity (napoletana, calabrese etc.) in a rural pre-modern society, to becoming economic actors in an urban and industrial context, that was at the origin of the process of the Italianization of this community. Within this framework, ethnicity (Italianity) is interpreted as a social practice or a human construction rather than an immutable attribute.36 In this perspective, Italianization would be an aspect of the process of assimilation (as workers or employers) in an urban capitalist reality. The Toronto economy needed Italians, and an ethnic identity was built to give them the right position in the mechanism of the local labour market (i.e. as an unskilled worker or small employer in the Toronto construction industry). In this perspective, Italianity represented an element of efficiency for the local capitalist economy.

More generally, despite the possible existence of some specific cultural features as determinants of ethnic behaviour, in this book I want to show ← 8 | 9 → the necessity of focusing on the characteristics of the social and economic environment in order to understand the social, economic and cultural features of the immigrant experience in capitalist economies. My study has aimed to evaluate the importance of structural factors in influencing the process of economic specialization that affected the post WWII Italian immigrants in the Toronto construction niche. In this regard, the book focuses on the features of the macro-economic conjuncture (such as construction boom) and the characteristics of the local labour market (e.g. both barriers at the entrance and the demand for low-skilled workers) as the main factors influencing immigrants’ economic specialization.

However, my research project was not limited to the study of the impact of ‘structural factors’. In fact, the issue of evaluating the importance of ethnic/cultural identityin defining the role of immigrants as economic and social actors has also been a major focus of the book. In particular, the description of ‘ethnicity’ as a ‘social process’ does not mean to deny its importance in the immigrant experience. Conversely, in this book I wanted to test the extent to which ‘ethnicity’ has mattered. In order to do that I investigated the way Italian ethnicity was invented, how immigrants negotiated multiple identities (regional and national) and how these processes affected their settlement experience.

In particular, the book investigates the phenomenon of the Italianization of Italians in the Toronto construction industry and its impact on the processes of urban proletarianization and unionization of the Italian workers. A goal of my research project was to test the idea that the discovery of belonging to a larger ethnic group of exploited workers had been the way towards a new class consciousness. Within this framework, the book aims to test the belief that ethnicity is a human construction, but in this case study it was also the tool for a new and powerful class solidarity and awareness. Nevertheless, ethnic identity is also analysed as a tool which supported with strategic resources the path to entrepreneurship of many immigrants inside the economic ethnic niche. At the same time, this study has been an opportunity to evaluate the history of immigrant and ethnic entrepreneurial experience by considering some factors affecting entrepreneurship (e.g. capacity for innovation, industrial relations strategies etc.) not specifically correlated to ethnic issues.

← 9 | 10 →

The focus on both structural factors and ethnic matters is based on a glocal interpretative approach, with which the book aims to verify the assumption that the characteristics of Italian mass migration to post-WWII Toronto as well as the economic role played by these newcomers in the host society were the result of the working of ‘glocal’ mechanisms.37 The following research hypothesis is assumed: if the global labour market created the conditions to provide this Italian ‘industrial reserve army’ for the growing Canadian economy, Italian immigrants adapted themselves, and their ethnic background, to the geographical, cultural and psychological dislocation. In this perspective, ethnicization of the Italian labour force is interpreted as a necessity for the good operation of both a transnational capitalist labour market and the local Toronto economy. At the same time the book investigates the contradictions and conflicts, in terms of both class/union conflict and racial discrimination, which the persistence of ethnic identities produced in the host society.


XVIII, 360
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (June)
Social history, immigrants, Italians construction industry Twentieth-century mass migrations
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2014. 360 pp., num. b/w fig. and tables

Biographical notes

Stefano Agnoletto (Author)

Stefano Agnoletto (PhDs in Economic History, IUN University of Napoli and Modern History, Kingston University of London) is currently a teaching fellow at Bocconi University in Milano. Over the last two decades he has collaborated with various Italian and Canadian universities. He was a visiting professor at Novorsibirsk State University in Russia and at the Instituto Tecnològico de Estudios Superiores of Monterrey in Mexico, and he was a visiting scholar at York University of Toronto in Canada. He has carried out many research projects as a junior and senior researcher. Testifying to this research activity is a large body of publications edited in Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Spain, Russia and Poland.


Title: The Italians Who Built Toronto