The Italians of Montreal A successful model of integration

Photo credits: Casa d'Italia Archive Center

2018/02/06 - Written by Giuseppe Valiante
De Francesco Italian Grocery Store, corner of Saint-Zotique and Clark (1914)
De Francesco Italian Grocery Store, corner of Saint-Zotique and Clark (1914)
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The influence of Italian culture in Montreal is strong, undeniable and pervasive. And according to University of Montreal history professor Bruno Ramirez, Italian immigrants to North America couldn’t have done it without one major tool: education.

“Education was the main springboard that propelled (Italian immigrants) into the mainstream of Canadian culture,” Ramirez explained. While education was critical, property ownership, strong family and community ties, as well as favourable immigration policies by the Canadian government, were all important ingredients that made the success of Montreal’s Italian immigrants so sweet.                                       

Montrealers are now used to seeing Italian-Canadians at the helm of important economic and cultural industries such as construction, medicine, law, media and art. But the achievements of Italian-Quebecers were hard-won, Ramirez said.       

Italian Family, Montreal (1952)

Ramirez, born in Eritrea to Italian parents and who grew up in Sicily, spent years researching the Italian experience in Montreal. He has written books, published articles and wrote scripts for documentaries on the subject. He recently presented some of his findings to an audience at Quebec’s National Library. While the influence of Italians in Montreal is no secret, for years it had largely been undocumented. “I needed to make available to both academic and the wider public this knowledge that did not exist yet and to do it in a way that would be acceptable through the right methodologies.” Ramirez said.                         

The story of Montreal’s Italians began in the late 1800s, he explained. Before then, Montreal had been home to a few hundred Italian artisans and businessmen. What is considered to be the first wave of Italian immigration to the city started towards the end of the 19th century and lasted until the advent of World War One. They came from Italy’s southern region: Calabria, Molise, Campagnia, and a few also hailed from Friuli–Venezia Giulia. 

Italian workers, CN Railway (1953)                            

Italian immigrants largely arrived in the eastern United States to work on railroads or in mines. However, recruiters from Montreal quickly started bringing Italian labourers across the border. The vast majority of the immigrants were young men: They were either single or came without their families. The goal of these young immigrants was to make money during the milder temperatures and return to their villages in the winter - but an increasing number of the men decided to stay during the cold months.                       

Between 1900 and 1910 was a crucial period, Ramirez explained. The several thousand young Italians who decided to stay the winter formed what Ramirez called “little enclaves” and they started bringing over their families, which began a process of what Ramirez defines as “chain migration.” Some of these enclaves were in Montreal’s Mile End area, what later became little Italy. Slowly, Italian commerce and institutions began forming. The church, Madonna della Difesa, was built around this time, in 1910. 

Italians Immigrants in Halifax to Montréal 1950-1960                           

However, this accelerating flow of immigration was halted during WWI. Mass migration of Italians to Montreal recommenced after 1945, when much of Europe was destroyed due to the Second World War. The majority of Italians who immigrated during this period were labourers; however, the second wave comprised a differentiated set of immigrants. Ramirez said second wave immigrants were more educated than those who arrived in the early 1900s. They came from the same regions as the first wave, but also from Marche, Lazio and Sicily. “Many of these people would have probably wanted to go to the States,” Ramirez explained. “But the U.S. had very stringent immigration policies at that time.”

He points out that Canada’s immigration policies, called the sponsorship system, actually favoured Italian immigrants. It was a system whereby an Italian resident in Canada was permitted to bring over relatives as long as they looked after them. “The policy didn’t last long, but it lasted long enough for many Italians to take advantage of it,” he said. The city’s Italians developed certain strategies that bred success. One of the first was property ownership, and Italian-Montrealers became one of the immigrant groups with the largest number of property owners. “It was important for them to be independent; you didn’t have to pay rent and you could do what you wanted in your own house,” argued Ramirez.                

Marché Jean-Talon (1963)

Once they bought homes, Ramirez said another important step was to foster strong community ties. “It was very important to stick together,” he said. Italians created their own institutions, whether it was through the church, clubs or other organizations. After buying a home and forming strong bonds within the community, there was still the matter of getting accepted by Montreal society as a whole — which wasn’t easy, Ramirez said adding “Italian culture was once considered to be ‘lower’ in the eyes of the more established communities in the city. But little by little, helped by the policy of multiculturalism by the federal government, Canadians became more sensitive to the importance of minority cultures to the Canadian mosaic.”

The period of mass migration may be over, but Italians are still moving around the world in smaller numbers. One of the reasons for this new immigration is explained by the fact that Italy’s economy is weak and unemployment remains stubbornly high – at over 11% by the end of 2012. Montreal’s new Italian migrants tend to be business people and university graduates from a variety of professions. Moreover, they tend not to be involved within the larger established Italian communities, “but rather in larger economic and institutional environments,” Ramirez said.                      

Finally while the Italians of Montreal didn’t impose their way of life on the city, they didn’t need to. Montrealers themselves chose to integrate Italian culture into their own.

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