While at first, the late 19th and early 20th century pattern of Italian immigration essentially consisted of men who were focused on short-term settlement options, these tenement accommodations quickly became permanent. Ultimately, it was the influx of women and children that helped swell the ranks of the community and solidify its base on Canadian soil. By the time of the 1931 census, the city’s Italian population was nearly 21,000 strong. Ten years later, it had topped 30,000 people.
Fleeing the overcrowded and squalid inner-city neighbourhoods (Faubourg à m’lasse, Saint-Henri, Goose Village or St. Joseph) where they first settled, many Italians began to concentrate along the Main (Boulevard Saint-Laurent), forming a vibrant community around Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense parish. During the early decades of the 20th century, estimates set at 60% the proportion of Italian migrants who moved away from their original settlement areas.
Apart from the Mile End district, which later became Little Italy, the Italian community also expanded further west – albeit to a lesser extent – into neighbourhoods like Ville-Émard and Lachine, having been attracted by the establishment of new industries in that sector.
Over the course of settling and appropriating various parts of the city, Italians ostensibly developed some winning strategies; and, to some extent, the migration of Italians further north on the island reflected the community’s increased prosperity and social mobility, with more and more Italians purchasing and building their own homes. According to Professor Bruno Ramirez, Italian- Montrealers became one of the ethnic groups with the highest rates of home ownership in the city. This gave them the independence and the freedom to appropriate their living spaces and develop them according to their needs. For instance, the first Italians to settle Mile End in the early 1910s found acres of untended land, which they were quick to transform into vegetable gardens. This distinctive cultural feature of Italian urban settlement contributed to maintaining and improving their eating habits.
Another important aspect of Italian life is strong social ties. The community developed quickly around shops (Jean-Talon Market), institutions (Casa d'Italia), independent and mutual aid societies such as the Ordini Figli d'Italia, and several associations for migrants from the same Italian towns (associazione Guglionesana or Casacalendesa), provinces (such as Caserta near Naples), and regions (Associazione Calabria). In addition, family and friendship networks were offered as resources for newcomers in a process of chain migration that enabled reunification with extended family. In the mid-1950s, Little Italy had more than 15,000 Italians each adding their own colour to Montreal.
With community cohesiveness achieved and housing equity secured, Italians then endeavoured to gain the acceptance of their host society – a difficult and sometimes painful exercise, which feels far removed from our contemporary experience, especially when one walks along the Main in Little Italy. Now bustling and appreciated by all, Little Italy is an eloquent example of the success of a community, which is now an enduring source of pride for Montrealers.
Source: Sylvie Taschereau (1987) Pays et patries: mariages et lieux d’origine des Italiens de Montréal, 1906-1930, Montréal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 146 p. (English: Country and Homelands: Weddings and places of origin of Italians in Montreal from 1906 to 1930, Montreal, Université de Montréal Press, 146 p.
Church of the Madonna della Difesa, 1963 (c) Archive photos - Petite Patrie.Com