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General History

A History of Italian Immigration to Canada

 

The Italian presence in Canada dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus. It is believed that the first Italian to visit Canada was Giovanni Caboto, who explored the coast of Newfoundland and claimed it for England in 1497. Caboto was born in Venice and is better known by his anglicized name John Cabot.1

Italian troops served as mercenary soldiers for a number of European monarchs including the English, French and Spanish. There were Italians fighting alongside the British in the War of 1812. Italians came to Canada as individuals, artists, painters and teachers, bringing a cosmopolitan outlook to the urban centres of Montreal and Toronto.

Despite the length of time that they had been coming to Canada, by 1881 there were only 2,000 Italians reported to be living in Canada. The first massive wave of Italian emigration occurred between 1900 and 1913, when over 60,000 Italians came to Canada.2

The majority of these immigrants were young, male Italians coming from the United States. They were attracted by the prospect of work with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway and Dominion Coal. Most of these men worked as Sojourners. Officially they lived in Montreal or Toronto, but they worked out of the cities for months at a time - building the railways, and clearing the forests, in preparation for roadways in Ontario's central district.

Italians also worked in the Niagara region, picking fruit. These men lived in shared accommodation and sent much of the money back home to their families in Italy.3

By 1910, Toronto was facing an economic boom. New roads, buildings, water mains and sewer systems were built and streetcar tracks were laid. The Italian community became settled, working in Toronto. They established "Little Italys" throughout the city. The first and most important of these communities was centred around College and Grace Streets; the second around Davenport and Dufferin; and the third in what was known as "The Ward," where the new City Hall now stands, with Queen St. marking the southern border.

This period of emigration from Italy came to a close in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, emigration from Europe ended.

After the war, Canada opened its doors to immigrants again. It was believed that Northern Italians were better educated and better suited to life in Canada. It was not, however, the Northern Italians who wanted to emigrate here. The South had been suffering since the unification of Italy in 1861. The soil was poor. Families divided the land up into lots for their sons, and doweries for their daughters. With each generation, the lots became smaller and it was more difficult to sustain a family. In the early 1920's, the Southern Italians arrived in Canada by the thousands, using an elaborate network of families and friends who helped sponsor them. There was massive immigration from Italy to the United States, South America and Canada. Following World War I, it was no longer the single male who was emigrating to Canada. By 1921, families and female Italians were almost equal to that of the male population.

So great was the emigration in the 1920's, that the fascist government of Mussolini passed a law aimed at impeding Italian immigration between 1924-29.4 With the onset of the great depression in 1929, Canada virtually closed its doors to immigration. The Italian community, dependent upon piecework and manual labour suffered during the Depression.

It was World War II and the massive influx of spending by the government to fuel the war machine, which shook the economy out of that bleak economic downturn. Many Italian Canadians had retained close ties with Italy. There had been many clubs and associations started in Canada in the 1920's and 30's, which were pro-fascist. With the outbreak of war and the alliance between Italy and Germany, Italian Canadians were viewed as "enemy aliens."

Unfortunately, suspicion fell upon all Italian Canadians. Italians were now seen as threatening. Thousands of Italians were fingerprinted and interrogated, and for many, the interrogation led to internment. Italians suddenly felt unsafe speaking their language or celebrating their culture. Worried they would be perceived as a threat, many Italians tried to mask their cultural identity by anglicizing their last name.

However, many were sent during the war to internment and work camps near Petawawa, Ontario where they were forced to leave their families, give up their businesses, and be seen as outcasts.

It was not until 1947 that the ban on immigration from Italy was lifted. At first, the majority of the immigrants were from the North, but by 1949, Southern Italians started to arrive. This geographic region of Italy would dominate the emigration pattern for the next thirty years. Between 1947 and 1983, more than 20,000 Italians entered Canada per year, with the peak year being 1966 when 30,000 Italians arrived. In this 36-year period, the number of Italians in Canada increased four-fold from 150,000 to 450,000.5 Before World War II, the urban centre of choice was Montréal. Following the war, this changed to Toronto. Today, 62% of Italian Canadians live in Ontario. In the 1996 survey, 729,455 Canadians listed their ethnic background as Italian.6

The Italian presence in Canada dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus. It is believed that the first Italian to visit Canada was Giovanni Caboto, who explored the coast of Newfoundland and claimed it for England in 1497. Caboto was born in Venice and is better known by his anglicized name John Cabot.1

Italian troops served as mercenary soldiers for a number of European monarchs including the English, French and Spanish. There were Italians fighting alongside the British in the War of 1812. Italians came to Canada as individuals, artists, painters and teachers, bringing a cosmopolitan outlook to the urban centres of Montreal and Toronto.

Despite the length of time that they had been coming to Canada, by 1881 there were only 2,000 Italians reported to be living in Canada. The first massive wave of Italian emigration occurred between 1900 and 1913, when over 60,000 Italians came to Canada.2

The majority of these immigrants were young, male Italians coming from the United States. They were attracted by the prospect of work with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Canadian National Railway and Dominion Coal. Most of these men worked as Sojourners. Officially they lived in Montreal or Toronto, but they worked out of the cities for months at a time - building the railways, and clearing the forests, in preparation for roadways in Ontario=s central district.

Italians also worked in the Niagara region, picking fruit. These men lived in shared accommodation and sent much of the money back home to their families in Italy.3

By 1910, Toronto was facing an economic boom. New roads, buildings, water mains and sewer systems were built and streetcar tracks were laid. The Italian community became settled, working in Toronto. They established "Little Italys" throughout the city. The first and most important of these communities was centred around College and Grace Streets; the second around Davenport and Dufferin; and the third in what was known as "The Ward," where the new City Hall now stands, with Queen St. marking the southern border.

This period of emigration from Italy came to a close in 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, emigration from Europe ended.
After the war, Canada opened its doors to immigrants again. It was believed that Northern Italians were better educated and better suited to life in Canada. It was not, however, the Northern Italians who wanted to emigrate here. The South had been suffering since the unification of Italy in 1861. The soil was poor. Families divided the land up into lots for their sons, and doweries for their daughters. With each generation, the lots became smaller and it was more difficult to sustain a family. In the early 1920's, the Southern Italians arrived in Canada by the thousands, using an elaborate network of families and friends who helped sponsor them. There was massive immigration from Italy to the United States, South America and Canada. Following World War I, it was no longer the single male who was emigrating to Canada. By 1921, families and female Italians were almost equal to that of the male population.

So great was the emigration in the 1920's, that the fascist government of Mussolini passed a law aimed at impeding Italian immigration between 1924-29.4 With the onset of the great depression in 1929, Canada virtually closed its doors to immigration. The Italian community, dependent upon piecework and manual labour suffered during the Depression.

It was World War II and the massive influx of spending by the government to fuel the war machine, which shook the economy out of that bleak economic downturn. Many Italian Canadians had retained close ties with Italy. There had been many clubs and associations started in Canada in the 1920's and 30's, which were pro-fascist. With the outbreak of war and the alliance between Italy and Germany, Italian Canadians were viewed as "enemy aliens."

Unfortunately, suspicion fell upon all Italian Canadians. Italians were now seen as threatening. Thousands of Italians were fingerprinted and interrogated, and for many, the interrogation led to internment. Italians suddenly felt unsafe speaking their language or celebrating their culture. Worried they would be perceived as a threat, many Italians tried to mask their cultural identity by anglicizing their last name.

However, many were sent during the war to internment and work camps near Petawawa, Ontario where they were forced to leave their families, give up their businesses, and be seen as outcasts.

It was not until 1947 that the ban on immigration from Italy was lifted. At first, the majority of the immigrants were from the North, but by 1949, Southern Italians started to arrive. This geographic region of Italy would dominate the emigration pattern for the next thirty years. Between 1947 and 1983, more than 20,000 Italians entered Canada per year, with the peak year being 1966 when 30,000 Italians arrived. In this 36-year period, the number of Italians in Canada increased four-fold from 150,000 to 450,000.5 Before World War II, the urban centre of choice was Montréal. Following the war, this changed to Toronto. Today, 62% of Italian Canadians live in Ontario. In the 1996 survey, 729,455 Canadians listed their ethnic background as Italian.6

Footnotes:

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8 Eh, Paesan, Being Italian in Toronto, by Nicholas Demaria Harney, University of Toronto Press, cp 1991.

6, 9, 10, 11 The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition, Editor in Chief: James H. Marsh, McClelland & Stewart Inc., The Canadian Publishers, Toronto, Ont. cp 1999.

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