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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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Chapter 1: Introduction


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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.

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