Contours of Postwar
Italian Immigration to Toronto
By: Franc Sturino
From: Polyphony Summer 1984 pp. 127-130
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario
In the years since the Second World War, the volume of Italian immigration to
Canada has been second only to that of the British. By 1981 over half a
million Italians had immigrated to Canada. These postwar settlers made up 70
per cent of the Italian ethnic group-which numbered over 750,000 in total. (1)
Ontario, experiencing a boom in its industrial, construction and
resource-based sectors, was the main destination of Italian immigrants, who
came primarily as manual labourers. Within the province, Toronto was by far
the major magnet attracting Italians. Building on a prewar colony of less than
16,000, the Italian influx into the city boosted the community's numbers to
300,000 by 1981. (2) This was over 10 per cent of the metropolitan area
population. As can be seen from Table 1, Toronto's Italians were almost twice
the number found in Montreal. As a proportion of the population, the Italians
of Toronto were second only to those of Sault Ste. Marie, where they formed a
concentrated, though numerically modest, colony. In any event by 1981
Metropolitan Toronto was home for about 40 per cent of Canada's Italian
When Ottawa opened its immigration gates in 1950, the pent-up desire for the
reunification of families and friends that had been smoldering for two decades
found release. Toronto's Italians hurried to take advantage of the legislation
which made it possible to sponsor relatives as distant as cousins. The process
of chain migration, by which many of the early, prewar immigrants had been
helped to reach Toronto by relatives or friends, was now resumed with vigour.
Prewar immigrants wrote their kinsmen with information and advice, offered
them loans for the overseas voyage, had the various bureaucratic forms
necessary for sponsorship processed by notaries or lawyers, and, upon arrival
of the newcomers, often provided them with housing, jobs and their initial
orientation to Canadian society. The process of chain migration steered
Italian immigrants to particular cities and towns across Canada where
relatives and "paesani" were already settled-the foremost of these
The second and interrelated major factor that acted to steer immigrants to
Toronto was the city's local economy. Building on its rich past as a
political, commercial, industrial and financial centre, Toronto, at the war's
end, was poised for major economic expansion. In the 1940s Toronto and its
suburbs contained a third of all the manufacturing workers in Ontario, and
within a one hundred-mile radius of the city was located one-third of the
purchasing power in Canada. This concentration of skilled, diversified labour
and the most lucrative market in the nation, combined with abundant energy
supplies, attracted large capital investments. Of all new industrial
development in Canada in 1946, for example, 47 per cent took place in Toronto.
Such wealth, in turn, could not but attract labour, whether from internal or
Toronto's city fathers were well aware of the economic crest that the Queen
City was destined to ride, and they were determined to maximize its promise.
The city's confident spirit was perhaps no better exemplified than by
Frederick G. Gardiner, who in 1955 spoke as the first chairman of the newly
formed Metropolitan Toronto:
"Canada is on the march. It is the land of opportunity. As Canada
prospers so will Ontario and so will Metropolitan Toronto. Metropolitan
Toronto is the hub and centre of a golden horseshoe of industrial
development extending from
Oshawa on the east where the annual production of motor cars is 20,000, to.
. . Niagara Falls with its tremendous production of electrical energy and
the many industries which it has attracted."
Toronto needed construction workers of all types-stonemasons, cement workers,
carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers and the like -and Italian immigrants were
ready and willing to fill the need. Hence, three-quarters of those who entered
Canada did so as common labourers. The great majority of Italians came from
impoverished, rural areas where peasant farming was still a way of life.
Educational levels were low-three years of formal schooling being average-and
modern, industrial skills were few. What these people could offer Toronto
above all else was hard work and manual skills appropriate to the construction
Like their forefathers before them who had been instrumental in the growth of
the cities, railroads and mines of the New World, the postwar immigrants were
builders "par excellence" in the history of contemporary Toronto.
Indeed, as late as 1971, almost one-third of Italian immigrant male workers in
Toronto were in construction. Attesting to the importance the field held for
immigrants attracted specifically to Toronto, this was considerably higher
than the proportion of Italian men in construction nationally, which was 26
per cent (by comparison, for the total male population the figure was only
10.5 per cent).
Many of the remaining Italian immigrant labourers in Toronto were occupied in
factory work, especially in traditional industries such as textiles, food
processing and furniture making that were labour intensive and oriented
towards an expanding local market. While it would be an exaggeration to say
that Italians were openly welcomed by Torontonians, who often resented their
foreign, strongly traditional ways, the necessity of their labour in the
city's development brought a growing, if belated, acceptance.
The logic of chain migration meant that many immigrants found employment
through relatives or friends, thus establishing concentrations in particular
industries and firms. Within the construction field, this could range all the
way from "paesani" working for small, house building or paving
subcontractors to working in groups for large, established firms such as
Dufferin Construction. Others formed "paese" concentrations in such
concerns as the Christie Brown Bread Company, Bomac Steel, or smaller firms
like Beverley Bedding. Occupational chains were also established by labourers
in the municipal Department of Public Works.
As immigrant women joined men in the work world, they too formed similar
concentrations. This was especially so in the many textile firms found in the
city centre, Tip Top Tailors being the largest of these. For women,
occupational chains were not only a means of finding employment and
establishing a degree of camaraderie in the workplace, the connections were
also a necessary, socially sanctioned means by which female honour could be
publicly maintained by the group, thus winning the acquiescence of protective
husbands or fathers to the reality of women working outside the home.
Aside from the broad mass of construction and factory workers, many immigrants
established small businesses such as bakeries, fruit markets and barber-shops.
These were often family-run and dependent on a clientele of fellow-countrymen.
Increasingly, such shops lined the major thoroughfares of Little Italy, as
well as dotting the cityscape of "English'' Toronto.
While it is not easy to distinguish these independent merchants and tradesmen
from the labourers they serviced in terms of general standards of living, and,
in fact, considerable movement occurred from one strata to the other, quite a
distinct middle class distinguished by higher levels of education, income and
prestige quickly emerged to provide various professional services. Within this
group were included notaries, travel agents, realtors, insurance agents,
lawyers, doctors, clergymen and small employers. Of these, lawyers, doctors
and businessmen were often drawn from prewar immigrant families. Notaries and
travel agents were seen to play an important role in expediting immigration
matters and were often relied upon to mediate between the newcomers and
government officials in matters such as income tax or workmen's compensation.
Hence, they held a much higher status among Toronto's Italians than their
counterparts in the general population.
Beyond this middling category, a more recent and increasingly active upper
class made up of relatively few, wealthy large businessmen, developers,
manufacturers, lawyer-entrepreneurs and the like can be distinguished. The
proprietors of companies such as Primo in the Italian food trade, Carrier
Footwear in manufacturing and TriDel in land development have not only had a
major impact on the economy of the area-frequently employing many of their
compatriots-but have also contributed significantly to the current acceptance
of Italian tastes and styles in the cultural life of the metropolis.
Public leadership amongst Toronto Italians is exercised by members from both
this class and the larger middle class, within which can be included an
increasingly influential ethnic intelligentsia of journalists, writers,
teachers, media personalities and politicians. This elite of wealth and
education has taken the initiative of protecting and furthering community
interests "vis-à-vis" the wider society, as well as
"defining" what it means to be Italian within a Canadian context. It
remains to be seen, however, the extent to which this initiative corresponds
to the true wishes of common Italian Canadians and the extent to which it
gains their approval.
Italian immigrant settlement in Toronto was determined, most of all, by both
the desire for and advantage of living among kinsmen and "paesani."
The working out of migration chains meant that various regional clusters,
which had developed in the city since the early part of the century, were
strengthened and augmented by newcomers who sought to live among
fellow-villagers. Despite the undifferentiated image of a single, homogeneous
Little Italy, which often presented itself to the outside eye, in fact, a
great deal of diversity and complexity existed. This heterogeneity took the
form of particular regional, village and-where the kin group was large
enough-even family concentrations that emerged on particular blocks and
streets, both within the city's conspicuous Little Italy areas and outside
By the end of World War One, aside from the immigrant receiving area in the
Ward district around Elm and Elizabeth Streets, four other concentrations were
in clear evidence. These were the Queen-Parliament Street pocket composed
primarily of Sicilians with some other southerners; the Junction concentration
around Dupont and Old Weston Road which contained many Puglians; the
College-Grace Street centre which was heavily Calabrian, but contained many
other southerners as well; and the Dufferin-Brandon Avenue neighbourhood
composed mainly of northern and central Italians.
After World War Two, although a mere remnant of the early Ward colony
remained, Italian immigrants continued to frequent the area since many
attended services at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church-the city's first Italian
parish-located on St. Patrick Street. For the most part, the earlier, broad
regional concentrations survived and prospered. In a general way, they also
corresponded to occupational specialization.
In the east end, the former Sicilian cluster had migrated northward to the
Coxwell-Danforth Avenue area, where its members encountered neighbouring
Puglians a few blocks west. In 1961 about one-quarter of the population in the
vicinity was Italian. (3)
At the other end of the city, Puglians and other southerners settled in the
Junction colony, which expanded greatly in the postwar years. Serviced by two
Canadian National Railway lines and one Canadian Pacific line, the Junction
was home to the many factory workers employed in this heavily industrial area.
By 1961 the main residential stretch was between 40-50 per cent Italian. (4)
In the city's west end, many of the Calabrians and other southerners in the
College Street colony formed part of the great "pick and shovel"
brigade of the fifties that came to be commonly associated with the Italian
presence in the city. Unlike the residents of the Brandon area, who commonly
worked in building construction trades, those in the College Street colony
often laboured at ground or below-ground jobs-paving roads, building
sidewalks, installing sewers or gas mains, and the like. Many others, of
course, worked in the various factories and stores of the city.
The College Street colony in the 1920s had emerged as Toronto's major Little
Italy, and through the postwar years, it performed the role of reception and
commercial centre for a great many of the city's Italian immigrants. Thus,
grocery stores, barber-shops, tailor shops, shoe repairs, travel agencies,
restaurants, clubs, theatres and similar establishments, all with a distinctly
Italian character, offered newcomers a complete array of services to meet
virtually any need. Moreover, the community was large enough to support two
Italian parishes: St. Agnes and St. Francis of Assisi. Both were located on
Grace Street, a mere block from each other. In 1961 in the area bounded by
Bathurst Street and Dovercourt Road in the east and west respectively, and
Dundas and College Streets on the south and north, were to be found
approximately 16,500 Italians. On the streets bordering the two churches due
east, they formed almost 60 per cent of the population. (5)
In spite of this, by the late fifties the hegemony of the College Street
Little Italy was being challenged by the rise of a new residential-commercial
centre to the northwest. This area, with the main thoroughfare of St. Clair
Avenue forming its main axis, emerged as the northern extension of the Brandon
concentration. While the business and social centre of the colony was along
St. Clair between Dufferin and Lansdowne Avenue, residentially, by 1961, the
colony was well over twice the size of the College Street Little Italy.
Indeed, the 1961 Census shows Italians making up almost 54 per cent of the
population in the large area bounded roughly by Dufferin Street and Caledonia
Road on the east and west, and by Dupont Avenue and the city limits on the
south and north. (6)
Through the sixties, it was clear that both in population and community
significance, the St. Clair area had supplanted College Street as the city's
major Little Italy. While St. Mary of the Angels parish-which was founded in
the late thirties and was located on Dufferin Street midway between the
Brandon pocket and the newer St. Clair centre-played an important role in the
area, because of the colony's size, two other churches were called into
service on behalf of the Italians. These were St. Clare and St. Nicholas,
which were on St. Clair Avenue, east and west of Dufferin respectively. (7)
Riding the crest of ongoing economic prosperity, Toronto's Italians continued
to push the frontier of urban settlement northwesterly at a surprisingly rapid
pace. This attested to the group's relentless drive to achieve middle-class
standards of living and security which would allay, once and for all, memories
of Old-World deprivation and, often, social inferiority.
Through the Borough of York and the southern part of North York, Dufferin
Street continued to be the major axis of Italian settlement, up to Lawrence
Avenue, where it tapered westward and became centred along Jane Street. Hence,
while in 1961 nowhere north of the 401 highway did Italians form more than 15
per cent of residents, a decade later along the Jane Street corridor to the
metropolitan limits, they comprised between 30-45 per cent or more of the
population. (8) More recently, the northwest advance of Italians has created
heavy concentration outside Metro Toronto in adjacent towns, such as
Woodbridge and from whence the migration has arched southwest into areas of
Mississauga, such as Erindale.
I . "Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and
Biculturalism," Book IV: "The Cultural Contribution of the Other
Ethnic Groups," (Ottawa, 1969), Table A-l, pp. 238-45; "1981 Census
of Canada: Population by Ethnic Origins" (Canada, Provinces and
Metropolitan Areas), Backup Table No. 13.
2. "Census of Canada"1931-81.
3. 1961 CENSUS: "Metropolitan Area of Toronto 1961: Italian Ethnic Group,
5. 1961 CENSUS: Map 1; 1961 CENSUS: "Metropolitan Area of Toronto 1961:
Italian Ethnic Group, Map 3."
6. 1961 CENSUS: Map 1.
7. Though these were the major Italian concentrations, numerous minor
residential pockets existed throughout the metropolitan area. Moreover, many
Italians such as fruit vendors along the city's main arteries, garden farmers
on the city's outskirts and successful businessmen who preferred to live in
exclusive neighbourhoods, lived outside the boundaries of the Italian areas
altogether. This is to say that residential heterogeneity among Italians-as in
other spheres-was quite pronounced.