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The Italians Who Built Toronto

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


Stefano Agnoletto

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.
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This book has been made possible by the help and support of a number of people to whom I am extremely grateful and forever indebted. All shortcomings in this work are mine and mine alone; however, for all that is of value, I share the credit with all of them.

Many members of the Italian community in Toronto were exceptionally helpful and incredibly friendly. This alone made my fieldwork a pleasant and memorable experience. In particular, there were a few people who contributed considerably to my understanding of the history of the Italian workers and who opened their homes to an overly curious stranger. To all of them, I extend my heartfelt thanks for their commitment to my work, and their generosity of time, knowledge, insight and wisdom.

First and foremost, warm thanks go to the retired construction workers from the Local 506 in Toronto: Pio, Giovanni (Joe), Giuseppe, Domenico, Antonio (Tony), Franco, Dario, and Paolo. They made this work possible. The stories, thoughts and experiences they shared with me were delightful, passionate and at times emotionally difficult. I miss the wonderful lunches cooked by Anna Cieri that I shared with them at the Local 506 headquarters.

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