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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 3: The Italian Community


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The Italian Community

3.1 The origins of the community before WWII: from a community of male sojourners to a permanent settlement

This book focuses on the period from the 1950s to the 1970s when the majority of Toronto’s Italian immigrants reached the city. As Robert F. Harney has shown, the numbers of Italians arriving in Toronto in any two-year period of the early 1950s exceeded the number of Italian Canadians already in the city.1 However, before WWII, Toronto already had a significant Italian community, with three Little Italies, three Catholic parishes and many clubs and associations, as well as Italian-language newspapers.2 The small community of a few hundred Italians in 1891 increased to just over one thousand in 1901,3 while in 1941 there were more than 17,000 Italians in Toronto,4 representing the city’s second largest minority group after the Jewish population5 (see Graph 3.1). The waves of Italian immigrants who arrived en masse during the 1950s and the 1960s had to deal in a range of contradictory ways with this pre-existent community and they settled in an ethnic reality strongly influenced by it.

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