The mass immigrations of Italians to Canada from 1870-1914, 1920-1930 and 1950-1970 are part of the broader history of the Italian Diaspora, a migratory movement prompted by poor economic conditions in Italy that arose in the 1860s and lasted for over a century. While the first Italian immigrants came to Canada in the 1830s and 1840s, mass Italian immigration did not begin until the 1870s, continuing relatively uninterrupted until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The second wave of migration occurred between 1920 and 1930 before the Great Depression stopped almost all immigration to Canada. Between 1950 and the early 1970s, the third and largest wave of Italian immigrants arrived in Canada. Despite classification in Canadian immigration policy of the late 19th and early 20th century, as undesirable, hundreds of thousands of Italian citizens immigrated to Canada using kinship networks and Canadian labour shortages. Although Italian immigrants were met with a number of challenges upon arrival in Canada, a vibrant Italian-Canadian community gradually emerged, significantly contributing to the building of the nation.
The first Italian immigrants to Canada primarily settled in Toronto, Montreal, and to a lesser extent Vancouver, but also established homes in mining and industrial towns across the country. The Canadian government did not actively encourage Italian immigration because Italians were considered ill-suited to the pioneering lifestyle. Official immigration policy was aimed at settling farmland on the Canadian prairies and the government favoured British and northern European immigrants to settle the West. Nevertheless, over 60,000 Italian immigrants came to Canada between 1900 and 1913 in response to the need for inexpensive labour in Canadian industries. The railways required a constant supply of labour for construction, maintenance, and work in subsidiary mining companies, and while Italians were not considered desirable settlers, young Italian males came in the thousands as seasonal labourers for the railways. Many of these sojourning labourers came with the intention of working for one season and making money to send home to their families. Labour agents assisted those coming for work by arranging transportation and finding jobs for a fee. Some agents were dishonest and brought over more men than there were jobs available, leaving many Italian labourers stranded in Canada with no money to buy return passage to Italy. During the winter months, the seasonal labourers would go to Toronto and Montreal, finding work in construction and manufacturing. Many of the men who migrated seasonally returned to Italy, but some remained in Canada either because they were unable to make enough money for the passage or they found opportunities in Canadian cities. The labourers that remained formed the basis of Italian communities in Canada, giving rise to ethnic enclaves known as “Little Italys” in the major urban centres.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 significantly slowed immigration to Canada. While the conclusion of hostilities in 1918 brought an increase in immigration, the number of immigrants was substantially lower than it had been in the pre-war period. Approximately 40,000 Italians came to Canada during the interwar period, predominantly from southern Italy where an economic depression and overpopulation had left many families in poverty. Prior to the war, Italian immigrants were primarily young male sojourners, but as urban labour replaced railway work, more Italian men chose to permanently settle in Canadian cities. This led to an increase in the migration of Italian families in the interwar period as women and children joined their husbands and fathers in Canada.
By 1930 it became clear that economic conditions were worsening and the Canadian government imposed strict regulations to reduce the number of prospective immigrants. The restrictions on immigration were further strengthened during the Second World War, specifically against individuals from enemy nations such as Italy. Under the War Measures Act, approximately 31,000 Italians living in Canada were officially classified as enemy aliens. Italians and other “enemy aliens” in Canada faced persecution and internment based on the perceived threat they posed to national security. Italian-Canadians were targets of ethnic slurs and many began speaking English amongst themselves in an effort to prove loyalty to their new country. Between 1940 and 1943, approximately 600 Italian-Canadian men were arrested and sent to internment camps as potentially dangerous enemy aliens with alleged fascist connections. While many Italian Canadians had initially supported fascism and Mussolini’s regime for its role in enhancing Italy’s presence on the world stage, most Italians in Canada did not harbour any ill will against Canada and few remained committed followers of the fascist ideology.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Canadian immigration policy remained highly restrictive, preventing the migration of displaced persons, refugees, and other immigrants. In the late 1940s, Italians were removed from the enemy alien list, prompting the largest wave of Italian immigration to Canada. Between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, approximately 20,000-30,000 Italians immigrated to Canada each year. Many Italians came to Canada on government-sponsored one-year contracts to work in industries with labour shortages, however, the majority of Italian immigrants during this period arrived through the process of chain-migration in which family members already in Canada sponsored their relatives from abroad. The number of Italian immigrants decreased significantly in the late 1960s as the Italian economy experienced a period of growth and recovery, removing one of the primary incentives for emigration.
After arriving in Canada, Italian immigrants faced many difficulties and challenges as they learned the language and adjusted to the rhythm of life in their new country. The majority of the Italian immigrants travelled to Canada by ocean liner, landing at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The feelings of unfamiliarity associated with immigration often began during the voyage. Rosa Ritorto (née Gareffa) recalls trying sliced white bread for the first time on the ship: “The food that impressed me the most was the sliced bread, and it was so soft! We weren’t used to this type of bread and I remember my mother crying and saying that if there was only this type of bread in Canada she wanted to go back to Italy. She would not even try a piece.” Some Italian immigrants had brought food with them from Italy, such as homemade cheeses, salami, and sausages, only to have them confiscated by immigration officials. Once immigrants landed in Canada and were processed by immigration officials, they boarded trains to take them to their final destinations, arriving at locations with unfamiliar climates and landscapes. In addition to the culture shock and language barrier, Italian immigrants also endured discrimination. Common prejudices held that Italians were prone to violence and that they introduced fascism and organized crime in Canada, seemingly undermining the moral fabric of Canadian society. Italian immigrants were also accused of taking jobs away from Canadians and living in overcrowded and unhealthy conditions since they often lived in multiple-family homes.
To ease the transition to life in Canada, Italian immigrants found support amongst their fellow Italian-Canadians, leading to the formation of enduring communities and organizations across the country. As more Italians arrived in Canada, the Little Italy districts of urban centres expanded and thrived. Italian immigrants also organized many voluntary societies and clubs. During the Second World War, many of these organizations were disbanded either due to alleged fascist connections or in an effort to avoid drawing attention to the community. With increased Italian immigration in the postwar period, some of the former associations were reformed and many new ones were created. For example, in 1952, Italian-Canadians formed the Italian Immigrant Aid Society to assist new Italian immigrants in their transition to Canada, and in the 1960s, the pan-Canadian National Congress of Italian Canadians was established. Italian-Canadians also developed various political, cultural, religious, and labour associations in addition to community media in the form of newspapers, radio, and television programs.
The Italian-Canadian community significantly influenced the social, cultural, and economic fabric of Canada. One of their most important contributions was in the area of labour reform in Ontario. As more Italians permanently migrated to Canadian cities, they came to dominate the construction industry in certain urban centres. By the 1960s, more than 15,000 Italian men worked in Toronto’s construction industry, representing one third of all construction workers in the city. Workplace safety and labour relations during this time lacked regulation, often leading to the mistreatment of Italian workers. This issue was brought to public attention after the Hogg’s Hollow Disaster in 1960 when five Italian workers were killed after becoming trapped in a tunnel while laying a water main. This event sparked an inquiry that pointed to the failure of Ontario’s workplace safety legislation and the lax enforcement of these laws by the Department of Labour. A Royal Commission was called to investigate workplace safety legislation, recommending a number of updates to the law, specifically in the construction industry. The Hogg’s Hollow Disaster additionally motivated Italians in the construction industry to take on an advocacy role, prompting two illegal strikes over better pay, union recognition, and safer working conditions.
Hundreds of thousands of Italians chose to make Canada their new home, in an effort to improve their economic welfare. Restrictive immigration policies classifying them as undesirable immigrants did not deter Italians from seeking out opportunities in Canada, relying on family networks and Canada’s need for labourers as means to emigrate. Culture shock, discrimination, internment, and poor working conditions made adapting to life in Canada difficult, but the Italian immigrants persisted to establish enduring communities and make valuable cultural and economic contributions, specifically through their participation in labour reforms. Italian immigration to Canada gradually led to the establishment of a thriving Italian-Canadian community that continues to be an important part of Canadian society.