Based on the 2001 census, the Italian community is the third largest ethnic group in Montreal after French and English, and the fourth in Canada after English, French and Chinese. What follows is a brief historical overview of the Italian immigration in Canada. It is important to mention that parts of this text will be included in the writing of my MA thesis, and therefore constitutes a work in progress.
Italian immigration in Canada can be divided into two waves of immigration. The first wave, roughly between 1490-1947, can further be subdivided into three phases: explorations (1490-1881), first settlements (1882-1914), and immigration halt (1915-1947). The second wave, covering the years 1948 to present, comprises two subdividing phases: mass immigration (1948-1971), and immigration drop (1972-present).
It should be mentioned that Italian immigration has not focused solely on Canada as a receiving country. Italians have migrated to a variety of countries quite different from each other. Indeed, countries like Australia, Argentina, the United States, Germany, Brazil, France and Belgium all have in common a significant proportion of Italians within their boundaries. Brazil and Argentina were actually the first destinations of Italians in the Americas.
2.1 First Wave: 1490-1947
The first phase, covering roughly the years 1490-1881, was characterized by explorations and very little settlement. Since the Canadian census only started in 1871, it is difficult to obtain a value about the number of immigrants that arrived in Canada before 1871. However, the 1881 census shows that Canada had a population of Italian ethnic origin of 1,849 people, out of which 777 were born in Italy. A ballpark figure to estimate the number of Italian immigrants between 1490-1881 could be 1,000, but this number should not be viewed as accurate.
It is through the work of navigators and missionaries (of the Roman Catholic Church) that Italians first came in contact with the Canadian soil and its native population. The purpose of their journey, however, revolved around land explorations and religious venues. Not many settled, and those who did settle were mostly missionaries and priests without families.
The second phase, roughly between 1882-1914, entailed an increased seasonal migration as well as the first permanent settlements of Italian families in Montreal. Between 1882-1914, approximately 120,000 Italians immigrated in Canada. However, not all settled here, since much of this migration was seasonal. The 1911 census shows that the population of Italian origin in Canada reached 46,000, out of which 7,000 (15%) lived in Montreal.
The catalysts in the upsurge of Italian immigration were labour and the ‘padrone’ system. The booming of the railway and mining industries generated a large demand for workers, while the padrone system (discussed later in this text) recruited and brought Italians to Canada as cheap labour in a chain migration.
During this period, there were two types of Italian immigrants: sojourners and settlers. On the one hand, sojourners referred to the Italians who returned to their homeland once the work-season ended (usually at the end of Fall). This pattern of seasonal migration was also influenced by the rigorous Canadian climate and the familial ties left behind in Italy. On the other hand, settlers referred to the Italians who did settle in Canadian cities, mainly in eastern cities such as Montreal, Toronto and Hamilton. However, the living conditions of the settlers were difficult both physically and socially. Italians often lived clustered in boardinghouses, were employed in the ‘dirtiest’ jobs (i.e. mines and railway trunks), and were racially discriminated. In addition, negative stereotypes (the Italian mafia, the ignorant peasant) and stricter government policies fueled hostility toward Italians.
During this phase, Italians migrated initially from the northern regions of Italy such as Liguria, Tuscany, Piedmont and Friuli. This then shifted to the southern regions such as Calabria, Molise, Basilicata, Campania, and Sicily. Eventually, Italians from the south came in North America in larger numbers than their northern compatriots. The hardship conditions of that time – hard work, low wages, poverty, diseases, discrimination – played a role in discouraging northern Italians, whereas southern Italians, mostly peasants and farmers, were already familiar with living the ‘hard life’.
During the third phase, between 1915-1947, Italian immigration in Canada slowed down, as roughly 34,000 Italian immigrants came to Canada. While immigration was sluggish, the Italian community continued to grow; there were 113,000 people of Italian origin living in Canada in 1941, out of which nearly 25,000 (22%) lived in Montreal.
Explanations derive from political and economic events taking place in Canada and Italy. In Canada, immigration policies were growing unfavourable to immigrants coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. Further, the great depression generated a drop in the demand for workers. In Italy, the First World War (1914-1918), followed by Mussolini’s fascist regime (1925-1943) and the Second World War (1939-1945) discouraged Italian emigration.
In Canadian cities, animosity toward the Italians was still palpable. The alliance of Italy with Germany during WW II transported the idea in Canada that the enemy (i.e. Italians) lied within. It was only after the war ended that Italian immigrants began to be considered as an acceptable ethnic group. A reason for this stems from the persistence of Italian institutions that conferred to the ethnic group a certain status among the Canadian society. These Italian institutions included newspapers, churches, schools, associations, and a growing commercial scene (restaurants, grocery shops, clothing stores, etc.) that solidified the roots of the Italian community in Canada.
The phase between the years 1948-1971 was one of intense Italian immigration. Between 1948-1971, roughly 457,000 Italians immigrated to Canada. During this period, Canada received on average 19,800 Italians per year. As opposed to the seasonal pattern in the first wave, immigration in this period was largely permanent. In 1951, Canada’s population with Italian origin reached 152,000; in 1961, it raised to 450,000; in 1971, it totaled 731,000.
The massive immigration boom was attributed to revised policies (prior to the 1967 immigration policy) and an upsurge in job opportunities mainly in the secondary sector. Whereas the first wave was assisted by the padrone system, it was the family that generated the chain migration in the second wave. Italians coming from the south of Italy followed relatives already in Canada, and found jobs in the secondary sector (e.g. construction) that matched their aptitudes. The fact that native Canadians generally rejected these jobs amplified the need to find immigrant workers to fill the positions.
However, signs of decline in Italian immigration started to be visible. The introduction in 1967 of the Canadian point system applied to the entry of immigrants had a downbeat effect on Italians coming to Canada. Indeed, between 1966-1971, Italians arriving in Canada decreased by 82%.
The last phase, between 1972 and 2003, reflects a sharp decline in Italian immigration. Between 1972-1981, Canada received approximately 37,000 Italians; between 1982-1991, it dropped to 9,000; and in the last decade, only 6,000 Italians migrated in Canada. Since 1972, Canada has been receiving an average of 1,700 Italian immigrants each year.
Some conclusions brought forward to explain this drop include better living conditions and job opportunities in Italy. However, changes in the Canadian immigration system in the late 1960s were the principal reasons behind the weakened inflow of immigrants from Italy (and from Europe in general). The creation of the point system in 1967 emphasized educational and occupational skills as selection criteria for admitting immigrants. The point system was implemented to facilitate the entrance of immigrants with better human capital (i.e. education, sufficient working experience, financial status), something southern Italians did not necessarily have.
Canada’s change in policies came as a result of the need to allow more competent (i.e. skilled) immigrants to enter and restrict unskilled immigrants. This was the beginning of a new era: immigrants were selected by their aptitudes rather than by their origin. This ultimately led to the decline in European immigrants in favour of Asian and non-European immigrants.
Today, although Italian immigration has stalled significantly in the last three decades, the Italian community remains the largest ethnic group in Montreal after French and English, and the fourth in Canada after English, French and Chinese. In the 2001 census, the population of Italian ethnic origin (single response) totaled 726,275 in Canada and 140,640 in the Montreal CMA.
The padrone system consisted in a trade market in which Italian labour agents (i.e. padrone) recruited men in Italy to work in Canada. Once in Canada, the padrone assisted the labourers in finding shelter and other services. The pattern of seasonal migration during the early 20th century fueled padronism, since sojourners often came alone and without any resources. It further sparked chain migration because it ensured Italian immigrants a job.
However, this system fell apart as Italians began to settle permanently in Montreal. The exploitative nature of padronism also caused its dissolution. The labour agents were becoming so powerful and influential that a Royal Commission in 1904 was created to investigate the activities of ‘labour’ agencies in Montreal. The Italian Immigrant Aid Society was founded in the same period to halt abusive human trade practices toward Italian labourers. The fall of padronism was replaced by the role of the family in facilitating Italian immigration.