Chiaroscuro: Italians in Toronto,
By: Robert F. Harney
From: Polyphony Vol.6, 1984 pp. 44-49
© 1984 Multicultural History Society of Ontario
*This is an abridged version of an article by the same author and title which appears in ltalian Americana I (Spring 1975), pp. 143-67.
Toronto ranks with New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo as an Italian metropolis outside of Italy. About half a million people in the metropolitan area are immigrants or the descendents of immigrants from Italy. Unlike the other great cities of immigration, the majority of Toronto's Italian population arrived after World War Two. 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. This fact probably justifies the social scientists' and politicians' concern with postwar immgration, but it has also helped to obscure the history of Italian settlement in the city. The newcomers themselves found the older immigrants so Canadian and so ''umbertine'' that they perpetuated the myth of the prewar city as ''Toronto the Good"-good being synonymous with blue laws, victorianisms and an homogeneous British population. So, many thousands of Italian immigrants and their children, who lived and worked in Toronto before World War Two and even World War One, have for the most part been ignored.
Those early Italian immigrants faced the same hostility that more recent visible minorities have. Sifton, the minister of the interior in l901, informed his deputy minister that ''no steps are to be taken to assist or encourage Italian immigration to Canada.... You will, of course, understand that this is to be done without saying anything that will be offensive.'' Toronto had about four hundred residents from the Italian peninsula in 1891. That number doubled in a decade, and by 1911 the census showed 2,200 men and 800 women of Italian descent in Toronto. They practised the stereotyped occupations of the first wave of immigrants. Mainly of urban and northern background, but with a significant number of southerners among them as well, (1) the Italians served as food vendors (victualers), innkeepers, teachers of music, musicians and shopkeepers. So the average income and status of the early Italians was quite high. In general, they made their living by providing ''European'' services, luxuries and amenities to their Anglo-Canadian neighbours. At the turn of the century their pattern of settlement was to provide the skeletal neighbourhood structure for those navvies who escaped the closed and cyclical world of migration and the padrone system.
At first, the older Italian settlers and the city held little meaning for the navvies. As Georges Goyau pointed out in 1898, migrants were drawn from high in the Apennines and sent to work on the raw frontiers of the New World, places like Patagonia and northern Ontario. In effect, they travelled through cities and modernity from one primitive setting to another, exploited as they passed by the city and the urban elites. Through accident or personal enterprise, some migrant navvies became urbanized. Even before l900 a few men, who boarded in Toronto during the harsh winter months, broke out of the exploitive tutelage of contractors, steamship agents and innkeepers. In the city they found alternative and freer economic opportunity. For example, the first pedlars who hauled bananas and other perishables from the railway yards behind St. Lawrence Market to middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods had been part of Sicilian railroad work gangs when they first reconnoitred the clty. (2)
In other cases, the padrone system itself failed, and men were trapped in the urban environment. The Toronto Empire of August 9, 1888, under the hostile headline "Those Deluded Italians,'' described the pattern:Quite recently a gang of navvies were brought to Toronto arl victimized, it is alleged by a countryman of their own .They came from New York to Cornwall, where they were unable ta secure the employment that had been promised them. There Alfonso De Santi and his brother took charge of them. They confidingly handed over $7 each to the De Sarlti brothers, the latter undertaking to pay the fare from Cornwall to Toronto....
So men who had migrated to the United States found themselves in the proletariat of the British Empire. Victims of the larger game being played by some dishonest countrymen and many callous North American businessmen, they became, perhaps despite themselves, urban men and immigrants, when they had started out as migrants from small agrotowns.
Italian settlements in cities like Toronto grew for another reason as well. Toronto' s Little Italy could be compared to a coastal enclave on a foreign shore. Most railway work gangs and most small Italian outposts in the mining or railroad towns of the Ontario hinterland fell back on Toronto or Montreal for protection against the hostile countryside. The Little Italy that grew up, first around the train yards and wholesale market and then in the "Ward'' in downtown Toronto, was the metropole, along with Montreal, for small huddled colonie throughout the interior of the province.
If one sees Toronto's Little Italy in this light, questions about magnitude and permanence-transience arise. The government census and Might's City Directory help only a little; the migrant and non-propertied were always underenumerated. That was inevitable since the census taker thought of Toronto as a self-contained entity while the migrant worker treated it only as a base camp. Before 1911, the census was taken in April, after that in June, but many men had already left for the North or the Niagara peninsula by the first thaw. Consequently, the number of Italians in the city was underestimated; also, underenumeration of navvies produced an impression of perrnanence and middle-class prosperity among the Italians that was only partially true. Men came and went, unrecorded by the larger society:As a rule, a good percentage of them are absent from the city during some months in the year. A number have been employed in the new bridge being built near Brockville, by the Ottawa and New York railroad; others have recently gone to work on the railways near Hull, Muskoka, and Niagara Falls, and a good many others have been employed on the Peterborough canal.
This description in 1897 of the Toronto Italian work-force by a future prime minister of Canada (Mackenzie King) affords a proper perspective on the city's role. The city was a place from which to sally forth or to fall back on when unemployed and unable to return to Italy. The range of the adventure from the city could be five hundred to a thousand miles, but, at least initially, one city-Toronto or Montreal-remained the base camp. It was the address to which relatives sent mail. It was the location of the importer of pasta and tomato paste- it was the location of the immigrant banker who transmitted savings to loved ones in the homeland. In fact, it was where one was, even if one were in the bush several hundred miles away.
When one hundred and fifty Italian workers went on strike at a Grand Trunk Railroad job site in June1906, they were attacked by police and company guards. They retreated to their bunk car. Defeated and dismissed, they were shipped back to the city. There they could either settle, find their way to new jobs, or back to ltaly, but only the city offered them alternatives to the peonage of being a migrant navvy.
By tracking through city directories and assessment roles, one can map the development of a settled Italian community in Toronto, a community that was varied and rich in its occupational structure. Seeing what happened is not, however, understanding what happened. Who were the new class of shopkeepers and professionals who emerged after 1910? Were they all the offspring of that earliest middle-class immigration? Did young migrants begin as navvies, work as pedlars and succeed as businessmen, or did a different type of immigrant come with sufficient capital to enter directly into the middle classes? The percentage of those who travelled to North America as steerage passengers would seem to negate the latter answer. (3)
The area of permanent Italian settlement in Toronto reflected the sources of the community. Located in the heartof the city, the first neighbourhood was part of an authentic foreign quarter known as the Ward, where Jews outnumbered Italians, and Chinese and Slavs also lived in considerable numbers. (4) The Ward was directly north of the train station; York Street and other arteries that ran to the railway had a jumble of boardinghouses, labour, bureaux and small immigrant shops. On the other hand, the colonia and its network of lesser streets and laneways lay behind the main commercial streets of the city.
Unlike their Jewish neighbours, the Italians had no dietary laws or a ritual performed by laity to encourage or promote the proliferation of special stores and specially skilled immigrants. Nor was there a hard and fast commercial stereotype of the Italians to match the place that Chinese laundrymen and restaurateurs had in the city's economy. True, one of the city's more muck-raking papers-Jack Canuck in 1911-complained that "the Italians employed by the City of Toronto refuse to buy any other than Italian macaroni," but that sort of food provisioning had traditionally been handled by contractors and innkeepers. How then can we account for the rapid development of enterprise among the newcomers?
The emergence of an Italian ambiente in Toronto' s Ward depended on three circumstances. First, in spite of facile use of the adjective unskilled, most of the migrants who settled in the city did have a mestiere -a trade-if only at the apprentice level. They worked as navvies, but they knew how to make shoes, tailor clothes, barber and work as stonemasons. Second, the seasonal nature of outdoor labour in Canada and the natural entrepreneurship of many migrants led to a constant probing of economic possibilities in the city during periods of unemployment. The heritage of chronic seasonal underemployment in rural Italy made it natural to accept a multiplicity of jobs as one's lot. Finally, and most important, the demand for unskilled labour almost imperceptibly passed from the countryside to the city. Not double-tracking the transcontinental railways through remote bush areas, but rather digging sewers and laying street railway lines in Toronto became the chief source of work for navvies. After 1905-a great fire the year before had prompted much demolition and building work-more and more navvies became permanent residents of the city, and Toronto' s Little Italy achieved the critical mass necessary to support and encourage a kaleidoscope of enterprises and occupations.
The building of the urban infrastructure, even more than the factory system, was the beginning of Toronto as a metropolis, and the Italian immigrant work-force was intimately and complexly bound up with the city's growth. Immigrant labour, whether in the form of pedlars, sewer workers, or streetcar track gangs, enabled the middle classes of the city to live away from the commercial core of Toronto. It enabled them to live in a style that scant years before had been the preserve of only the wealthy. Sicilian banana men or Calabrians and Abruzzians who created a sewer system where there had only been outhouses and cesspools were, through back-breaking labour, supplying amenities to the middle classes. Other Italians who found work in the needle trades in the Spadina area, or who rolled cigars and cigarettes all day, were also making middle-class life gentile e civile, while creating mass production and mass consumption without rapid industrialization.
The relationship of the Italian labourer to the city's economic boom sometimes appears downright providential, if not actually causative. For example, the technological shift, beginning in the 1900s, from wooden boardwalks and dirt roads to cement sidewalks and paved roads corresponds so closely to the arrival of Italians in the urban work-force that it defies coincidence. Italian navvies, through bitter experience in the Ontario north, or on rocky farms in Italy, knew about excavating, grading and shoring up ground. Large numbers of them, from a land where wood was too scarce to be used as a building material, had apprenticed as stonemasons. (Few were trained as carpenters.) After the anti-conflagration legislation, Toronto emerged as a city of brick, cement and cobblestone, from its sewers to the large new hospitals in the Ward. It is almost inconceivable that the city could have been so transformed without Italian workers.
Beyond the enlarged payroll that the navvies, now city workers, began to bring home to the Ward, the Italian community had several other major sources of income from the receiving society. Ironically, many of those minor trades that had languished in the restricted market of Italian agrotowns flourished in the no man's land between consumer demand and the slow industrialization of Toronto. Barbers, cobblers, tailors, victualers could depend on the middle-class desire for service and new luxuries to provide employment. In these trades too, Canadian stereotyping-the idea that "this is what those people do and are good at''-seems to have aided these enterprises. So much so that entrepreneurship was sometimes more important than apprentice skills. One of the first successful Italian barber-shops (ten chairs) on Toronto' s main street was staned by a man who had apprenticed as a shoemaker in Pisticci.
Nowhere did stereotype and talent interweave more than in the perishable foods trade. From the earliest days of settlement, there had been Italian fruit stores, and after 1900 the navvy turned fruit pedlar was ubiquitous. By 1912 at least half of the fruit stores in Toronto were Italian owned. Contrast that with only about a hundred out of 1,500 grocery stores and with less than 10 per cent of the barber-shops in Italian hands. Syrians, Macedonians and Greeks provided sharp competition in shoeshine work, diners and the sale of confectioneries. (5) In the early days, fruit pedlars rose before dawn to buy produce directly from the arriving freight trains, later from Italian wholesalers; they pushed carts many miles through alien streets selling to the non-Italian community. The logic of time-as-money caused many of them, as their businesses prospered, to settle and to open stores among their Canadian clientele outside the Ward.
Obviously, the older British stock and native Canadians held a stereotype of the Italians as expert handlers of fruit and vegetables, but it is interesting to see how that stereotype spread and interacted with reality. When Jews moved westward from the Ward to the Kensington area-where a new kosher market grew up-the first fruit store in the new complex of shops was Italian owned. The founder of Frontier College, an experimental institution for educating immigrants and isolated workers throughout Canada, wrote an English-language primer for newcomers. One reading lesson, illustrated with a push-can and a small, smiling, mustachioed man, discussed buying fruit. The little man was called Mr. Conti. So, not just the older stock, but other immigrants as well, were to be taught that Italians had a special affinity for the fruit business.
Two points emerge. By 1905 Italians in Toronto earned their primary income by performing their stereotyped roles. In other words, they did the jobs that Canadian society expected of them. On the other hand, that money-from navvies, pedlars and so forth-was spent within the ambiente of the Ward on a myriad of goods and services that gave the lie to the stereotypes. A typical street intersection in Little Italy might have a steamship agency that doubled as "immigrant bank" or post office, several boardinghouses or inns, a notary and interpreter. These enterprises obviously served as conduits for money, goods and people from Toronto to Italy and to the work sites in the interior. Bakeries and confectioneries, a shoemaker's shop and a newspaper office, along with many little stores selling Italian-style cheese, canned fish, vegetables and pasta, also lined the street. The Ward had few multi-storey buildings, and proprietors tended to live in back or over their shops. The presence of Kosher poulterers and fish markets retarded Italian enterprise in those trades. Restaurants, a saloon, the headquarters of several mutuo soccorso organisations were prominent as well. Barber-shop steps and the fronts of clubs served as piazze in the evening. (6) A Casa Metodista-the Little Flower Methodist mission-was in the heart of Little Italy, while the first Italian parish-Our Lady of Mt. Carmel-was on the fringes of the community. So while the stereotype depicted only navvies, pedlars and hurdy-gurdy men, a total ambiente and a multiplicity of trades existed within the community itself.
Preliminary study of the Ward shows that assumptions about social class, familialism and generational change do not help the historian very much. As the choice of occupations increased, status and income varied greatly within the Ward and often within the Italian family itself. Brothers living together on Elm Street left their flat in the morning, one to be cellarman in a brewery, a second to peddle fruit and a third to run a grocery and give music lessons downstairs. In one residence, five men with the same surname worked respectively as grocer, tailor, musician, labourer and hotel manager (boardinghouse keeper). (7) Only strong parents or expanding business could keep the immigrant family destiny a shared one.
While the locations of the first clusters of Italian immigrants, near the train yards and then in the Ward behind the business district, could be explained simply enough, the history of secondary Italian colonies in the city is more complex. Churches, the proximity of work, new public transit routes and cheap housing drew people to new areas, but so did accident and, of course, chain or family migration patterns within the city itself. First we must record the courage and enterprise of men who spoke little English and yet chose to live outside the Ward among their clientele. A high percentage of barbers, tailors, pedlars-if they felt the need of the ambiente-commuted back to the Ward every evening, but other men dared to move out.
As we have already seen, fruit vendors, particularly, resided in non-immigrant neighbourhoods. Many such merchants remained isolated. In a number of cases, however, such shops became the nuclei of new Italian residential areas. Men who began in the fruit business became grocers and provisioners. This often meant a change from a Canadian to an immigrant clientele. Sewer or street work near their stores turned them into subcontractors, steamship agents and boardinghouse keepers as well. Remarkably, all this activity could go on from the same corner store and upstairs flats that had passed into the hands of a fruit merchant at the beginning of the century.
One sort of distribution that may have been as important as the fruit vendors was that promoted by the street railway development and by the construction of railway sheds in greater Toronto. Just as the railroads played a key role in the settlement of various ethnic groups across the continent, so the substations and junctions created little groups of foreign labourers and, later, of their dependents in various outlying parts of the city. Track maintenance in the severe winters further attenuated the pattern of setlement. In the city itself the street railway and the radial trolleys served to disperse the original Italian community. Track workers, motormen and, ultimately, drivers who worked the long and often split twelve-hour shifts on the street railways found it logical to reside at different turns and junctions on the line.
The North American historiographical debate about the urbanism of south Italian peasants tends to undervalue the immigrant's search for self-sufficiency through home ownership and also through truck farming on the margins of the city. The new Italian Canadians probably had no dream of rolling wheat fields, but they did buy and intensively cultivate arable patches of ground in and immediately outside of Toronto. Sometimes these little farms were more than a supplement to family diet. Several extensive truck farms, employing many gardeners, grew up within the confines of Toronto. These properties were the centres of small Italian populations. They were also serendipity as the city expanded, and they played a role in the later development of Italian wealth in some suburbs around Toronto.
When we try to move from the objective conditions of immigrant life in order to reconstruct the settlement' s culture, the cant and bias of the available sources is obvious. In a city where library copies of G.A. Henty's Out With Garibaldi were as dog-eared by adulatory young readers as the copies of the same author's With Wolfe to Quebec, a myth of Italian liberty and bravery competed with disdain for the navvies, ''bare armed, bare-necked, sturdy, brown fellows,'' who accompanied each swing of the pick with some "utterance, an unintelligible muttering or a snatch of song." Unlike Garibaldi, the newcomers had not renounced Catholicism, so the evangelists thought that "something must be done to Canadianize and to
Christianize them, or there was a danger of free institutions being dragged to their low level.''
Perhaps the ambivalence of Toronto attitudes toward the Italian can best be seen in a poem of 1895 that hovered between derision, doggerel and respect for the Risorgimento tradition:Ice 'a cream-sex banana 'vive cent.
Pea nut drhee cent sze glass.
Ah Lady! sze 'Talyman's cheap
You no tink he vill sell, and he vass.
Thus night after night as I stroll down the street
At his cart on the corner the same man I meet,
At the southwestern corner of Ad'laide and Yonge,
Where the Saxon falls sweet from the soft Latin tongue.
But hard 'tis the trumpet fierce calling afar,
Its summons is rousing the valleys to war
The banners are floating o'er mountain and sea,
With golden words gleaming and crest of the free
And brave Garibaldi rides forth in his might
And Victor Emmanuel leads far in the fight....
The cross-cultural diffraction was such that evangelists and social workers saw the immigrants as savage innocents in need of moral uplift, assimilation and organisation. The navvies did not look much like the stylized lithographs of Garibaldi; somehow, educated Canadians reasoned, the heavy weight of Catholicism and rural poverty had dragged them down from the civic heights of the Risorgimento. So the Central Neighbourhood House, a non-sectarian agency in the Ward, sponsored, under the auspices of a Professor Shaw, a branch of the Dante Alighieri Society. However, both the settlement house and the Little Flower Methodist Mission had many more ltalians registered in evening classes to learn English than in cultural soirées and hymn singing respectively. The immigrants, locked in the struggle to survive, wished to cope with the new environment, not to be ''brought back to Jesus,'' nor to gain a new and uplifting awareness of italianità .
The establishment of an ltalian parish-Our Lady of Mt. Carmel-in 1908 may have lessened the distance between the immigrants and the clergy, but it is clear that diocesan officials did not find the pastoral mission to the newcomers an easy one. Either the parishioners were fractious, or the imponed Italian clergy suspect. The first priest at the new parish came under criticism because he lived with his sister a housekeeper and a cousin. All these ladies came either from Italy, or from Buffalo with him to Toronto. The archbishop did not see the persistent rumours of scandal as a refreshing sign of lay initiative and so, after it was discovered that the priest had ''no papers from Rome," he was replaced. (8)
Toronto's years as a small, transient and dependent colony left their mark on immigrant culture in the city. In the same way that Italian immigrants in the city depended on Marca Gallo of Montreal or De Nobili of New York for their Tuscan-style cigars, so they often read II Progresso Italo-Americano or the ''kept" papers of Montreal padroni like Cordasco and Dini rather than support locai newspapers. Touring musical maestri and other Italian celebrities who could have given impetus to cultural life often bypassed the city. (9)
Another cultural and, in a sense, political consequence of being a small community and of not being an ocean port was that barriers between paese groups broke down more quickly than in larger American cities. Certainly there was localism, and distinctions between Sicilians and those from the mainland were marked; traditional clannishness based on the home town or the province in ltaly did matter. Abruzzians, Calabrians and Neapolitans had skeins of paesani, which affected who was taken in as a boarder, where one shopped and had credit and which provided the contours for ephemeral social clubs. But the tansient years when men from many towns had bunked together , navvies, as well as insufficient numbers, meant that there was a block settlement by paese in downtown Toronto. More importantly the larger clubs, such as the Italian National Club, and the major mutual aid societies, such as the Umberto Primo Italian Benevolent Society, seem to have been open to all Italians.
Such organisations played a dual role. They nurtured Italian patriotism while they also created Italian Canadian culture and polity. The Umberto Primo Society had successfully petitioned the City Council as early as 1897 to commemorate the unification of Italy by annually raising the flag over City Hall on June 14. In turn, no one seems to have found it outlandish that the procession and festa of San Rocco should include a violin solo by a gifted Jewish boy from the Ward and should conclude with the D'Angelo band playing "God Save the King.''
The coming of World War One had special importance for Toronto's Little Italy. Loyalty to Italy and well-being in Canada were tested simultaneously. At the beginning of the war, there was anti-ltalian feeling because Italy was a member, if a vacillating one, of the Triple Alliance. Social workers reported that there was increased unemployment and discrimination against ltalian immigrants until May 1915. However, when the Italian government joined the Allied war effort, an immediate reversal of sentiment occurred. The British government had underlaken to help her allies gather their reservists working within the British Empire, and Italian legislation on emigration included a clause that made the diplomatic and consular service responsible for rounding up reservists in time of war. So the organisation and transfer of the riserva from Canada to Italy during 1915 was far more systematic than the volunteer movement among Italian Americans in the same year.
For a bitter-sweet moment in 1915, the chiaroscuro in the relationship between Italian and Canadian disappeared. Central Neighbourhood House published an honour roll of volunteers replete with drawings of bersaglieri. The image of Victor Emmanuel and of Garibaldi triumphed for the moment over hostile and racial stereotypes. Mayor Tommy Church of Toronto posed happily with Italian consular of ficials and recruits on the City Hall steps. Meanwhile late in May, a train left Vancouver bound for Montreal. Italian reservists and volunteers, many to be sacrificed in the bloody Isonzo campaigns, boarded the train at every stop. When the train arrived in Toronto, it was bedecked with placards in Italian, English and French: ''Andiamo a prendere Trento e Trieste,'' or "Britanni eccoci qua,'' or simply ''Andiamo a fare la guerra.''
The mood of exhilaration vanished with the train-load of troops. While many men who had not been called to service found the war an opportunity for upward mobility and full employment, families with bread-winners at the front were less fortunate. Many were reduced to living on public and private charity, and there was growing impatience as well. The editor of La Tribuna Canadese had to explain to many women whose husbands were fighting for Italy as loyal allies of the Canadian monarch that ''that fact was unfortunately not good for a vote in Canada.(10) World War One ended an era for Toronto Italians. Many reservists never returned to the city, and many families drifted out of the Ward to the newer neighbourhoods in the west end. Immigrant housing in the Ward had long been the target of both reformers and speculators, and the expansion of institutions like the Toronto General Hospital destroyed the housing that would have been the most likely first shelter of new immigrants after the war. St. Agnes parish to the west became almost as important as the Ward for Italian immigrants by the end of the war. The days of the founding community were over. The problem of generations, Canada's exclusionist legislation of the 1920s and the struggle for and against fascism in the community lay ahead.
1. I am indebted to Mr. Angelo Principe of Toronto for information about earlier census material. Mr. Principe has for some time been working on a scholarly history of ltalians in Canada.
2. Unless otherwise noted, socio-economic information of this kind is drawn from projects using city directories and oral history techniques that have been undertaken by students in my immigration seminar.
3. Of the Italians entering Canada legally in 1906-07, over 3,800 of 4,400 males were classified as labourers. Only 34 immigrants were classified as clerk/traders. Steerage passengers outnumbered others 5,000 to 17.
4. The Ward was not a tenement slum. It was a collection of streets and laneways full of decrepit single-family dwellings. In many ways, it resembled a shantytown near a mine or railroad site more than a big-city slum. Over 70 per cent of the area was owned by absentee landlords before World War One.
5. This information is drawn from city directories. Therefore a large number of shops with neutral or none-ethnic names, such as ''Sunshine Fruit Company.'' are not included. Obviously, then, Italians owned more than half the fruit stores,
6.This description is actually a composite of three or four intersections in the Ward as reconstructed from city directories. The area has been obliterated by institutions and parking lots, but the description would have held for Elm, Gerrard, Centre, Chesmut, and Elizabeth Streets particularly.
7. Among the limits of the city directories as a source is the difficulty of ascertaining relationships of people with the same surname in the same residence. Oral history seems to be, for the foreign-born, the best complement to the directories.
8. The archives of the archdiocese are not well or~anised as yet. This account is based on a series of letters in a box marked "Priests" during the episcopate of Bishop McEvoy.
9. The most famous slighung of the city's Italian community came in 1933 when Italo Balbo and his squadron of seaplanes stopped in Montreal on the way to the Chicago World's Fair, but ignored Toronto.
10. Newspaper clippings collection, Central Neighbourhood House.
Percy Seneviratne is the editor of the "Lanka News."
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