From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Italians/Franc Sturino

Italian contact with and migration to what is now Canada can be divided into four broad periods. The first occurred in the colonial era, when individual Italians, often of noble origin, played a significant role in the expansion and entrenchment of the European powers, specifically England and France, in the northern part of North America. The period extended from the turn of the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century, but it left no continuing Italian heritage. In 1497 Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot), under the sponsorship of the English Crown, sailed from Bristol and explored parts of what is now Atlantic Canada. He came ashore, most probably in Newfoundland, and, planting the English and Venetian flags, he claimed the territory for Henry VII. This was the first English claim in the New World, and his exploration of the fish-laden Grand Banks stimulated European exploitation of the fishery on the east coast. Giovanni Verrazzano, sailing under the auspices of France in 1524, explored the coast of the present day United States and eastern Canada and was responsible for the earliest French claims to what became Acadia. With the establishment of the colony of New France after 1608, Italians played a significant part in the exploration of the continent and contributed to the critical role of the military. Francesco Giuseppe Bressani was part of the Jesuit missionary advance into Huron country in the 1640s; he published his experiences asBreve Relazione in 1653. This sympathetic account of native life forms an integral part of the Jesuit relations (or reports) documenting the early history of Canada.

Iroquois attacks on the fledgling French colony prompted the dispatch in 1665 of the Carignan-Salières regiment, which contained several Italians, some of whom settled permanently in the New World. Greater security allowed France to expand into the interior of the continent. Between 1679 and 1682 Enrico di Tonti (who had earlier lost a hand in the French service) acted as lieutenant on René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle’s several expeditions, which further opened up the important fur trade. Tonti accompanied La Salle on the exploration of the Mississippi River to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, an expedition that established France’s claim to Louisiana. After his leader’s death in 1687 he continued to explore the western territory extensively in his own right. Throughout the French regime, military men of Italian origin played an important role in the defence and consolidation of New France, especially members of the Marini and Lino families. A number of their descendants, in addition to officers of Italian origin such as General Carlo Burlamacchi, participated in its defence during the British conquest of 1759–60.

A similar role was played during the British regime. Several hundred Italian soldiers were part of the de Meuron and de Watteville regiments, both of which had seen service in the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars. The regiments were transferred to Canada during the War of 1812, and, upon being disbanded, some two hundred Italians settled in the new land, especially on lots granted by Britain in the buffer regions of the Eastern Townships in Lower Canada (Quebec) and in Upper Canada (Ontario). Others settled in Montreal, where names such as Donegani, Del Vecchio, and Rusconi became entrenched. One descendant of this early presence, Paul Bruchési, rose to become the influential archbishop of Montreal at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1831 Captain Filippo de Grassi, who had been in the British service in the West Indies, migrated to Upper Canada, where he had been given a large land grant in York (Toronto). As a member of the city’s nascent Italian community, he later taught the language. His two young daughters, Cornelia and Charlotte, played a gallant role during the abortive Rebellion of 1837, providing information about the rebels to the authorities.

There followed a period of enterprise in which educated and skilled Italians, mainly from the northern part of the peninsula, migrated to British North America to offer specialized goods and services to the society at large. This period extended throughout most of the nineteenth century and laid the groundwork upon which permanent communities were established. Italian immigration to Canada between unification in 1861 and 1981 can be estimated to have totalled almost 700,000. The large-scale movement of people began at the turn of the twentieth century and occurred in two major phases: an early wave between 1900 and World War I and a more recent influx from 1950 to 1970.

The first phase was largely characterized by peasants from southern Italy, and it was divided into three interconnected currents: a dominant sojourning movement, a pioneer stream that put down roots in essentially unsettled parts of Canada, and an urban flow that gave rise to fairly complete communities. During this phase, Canadian immigration figures place the number of Italians entering the country at 119,770, the apex being in 1913 with 27,704, just before the war interrupted arrivals. In the second phase 514,000 Italians came to Canada, the high point being in 1956, when 29,806 individuals entered the country. This period witnessed the emergence of a distinct Italian-Canadian entity. While the movement was heavily from the south, the number of immigrants from throughout Italy was large. It was almost entirely urban and resulted in major Italian-Canadian communities that have had a significant impact on the mainstream society and culture.

In the early part of the century, Italian sources show a higher number of emigrants destined for Canada than were recorded by Canadian immigration officials. Since New York was by far the most important port of debarkation at this time, it is likely that a considerable number of immigrants originally bound for Canada remained in the United States. On the other hand, for the post–Second World War period, the Italian statistics are lower than the Canadian ones for immigrants of Italian origin, probably indicating the substantial number who arrived in Canada via third countries such as Belgium and Argentina. All together, in 1991 the Italian group of single ethnic origin in Canada numbered 750,055, or roughly the same as the total immigration from Italy, which indicates that a large proportion were temporary migrants, especially during the first phase.

After World War II, Canada emerged as a main destination for Italian immigrants; indeed, it almost equalled the United States and Argentina as a major country of settlement. The post-war immigrants formed almost 70 percent of the Italian-Canadian group, quite the opposite of the American pattern. However, the prominent role that Canada came to play is part of a long, involved history which stretches back at least two hundred years. Italian emigration has constituted one of Europe’s greatest population movements. In the more than one hundred years since the Italian government began recording official statistics in 1876, almost 26 million people have left for foreign destinations. Over half of this outflow occurred before World War I, especially in the early years of the century, and about half the total migration was temporary.

The large-scale emigration that evolved after Italy’s unification was preceded by a tradition of internal migration and of sojourning throughout Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Mediterranean basin. Soon afterwards, however, over 50 percent of Italians were bound for the New World. This transoceanic migration was primarily directed towards South America – specifically Brazil and Argentina – which absorbed 70 percent of the outflow to the New World, while almost 30 percent went to North America, nearly all to the United States. The massive emigration to South America involved Italians from throughout the peninsula, but predominately northerners. The movement was complex, attracting sailors, merchants, craftsmen, and construction workers, and it gave rise to important Italian communities in cities such as Buenos Aires and São Paulo. Nonetheless, it was driven by the agricultural boom in wheat and coffee, and, while some settled permanently on the land, the majority of emigrants were temporary rural labourers who eventually returned to Italy.

After 1900 this great movement to South America was increasingly displaced by the flow to North America. Out of 5 million leaving for the New World between 1900 and 1915, 68 percent were destined for the northern continent. Practically all of these individuals emigrated to United States, but the stream to Canada was significant. Although the numbers were relatively modest, this period gave Canada almost a quarter of its total Italian immigration. The change in direction of the transatlantic migration was caused by the major industrial boom and high wages that characterized North America after 1896, together with a decline in prosperity in South America. Moreover, in this transition, emigrants from southern Italy came to outnumber by a large margin those from the north.

Migration to Canada between 1900 and 1915 was characterized by a number of features. First, it was closely related to the flow to the United States. It has been estimated that 80 percent of Italians bound for Canada passed through the port of New York. More important, large numbers of them first discovered this country as part of their work trajectory in the United States. Italian labourers were prominent in building the modern American infrastructure, especially its railways, where they formed 57 percent of the workforce, and many followed work opportunities northward into Canada.

Related to this feature, Canadian immigration policy, while it officially encouraged only farmers and agricultural workers, in fact was open to the entry of Italian labourers when they were deemed necessary. The American boom fuelled economic prosperity in Canada, and major employers lobbied the government for exemptions to official policy. Thousands of Italians were admitted to work on railway construction and maintenance, as well as in the country’s mines, lumber camps, and building projects. For example, the main employer of Italians in this period, the Canadian Pacific Railway, imported up to five hundred from the United States in 1901 and contracted the recruitment of between six and eight thousand from Italy three years later.

Connected with Canadian immigration policy and the transitory nature of the infrastructure- and resource-based work in which most Italians were concentrated was the third major characteristic of the movement: at least half of it was temporary. About 80 percent were young males, usually between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four. Typically, they came to Canada in small groups to work at seasonal heavy labour, save their earnings, and return to their villages in Italy to buy land and a house with which to build a future. Often sojourners crossed the Atlantic several times in pursuit of their goals, and frequently disillusionment with prospects in the homeland, especially after World War I, convinced them to settle permanently in the new country.

Italian immigration to Canada during the early twentieth century was motivated by powerful forces on both sides of the Atlantic. Among major “push” factors, in the first instance, was an increasing population that during the previous century had steadily outpaced what the Italian economy could support, resulting in static, and in many cases even reduced, standards of living. A population growth that increased from 3 to 10.5 per thousand throughout the 1800s produced a rise in population density of from 57 to 106 people per square kilometre. Especially for the majority of Italians, who were engaged in agriculture, these demographic changes often led to plots of land too small to support families, and for agricultural labourers a drop in real wages. Despite promises of land reform, the unification of Italy did little to alleviate underlying structural problems and in fact exacerbated them. An industrial policy that favoured northern cities, a tariff war with France which dealt a heavy blow to traditional export crops, and heavy taxation, which disproportionately affected the agricultural sector, all had a serious impact on peasants and small farmers.

Hence about three-quarters of emigrants to Canada were small-scale farmers and agricultural labourers who had experienced few of the benefits of Italian unification, and over three-quarters of them were from southern Italy. Unlike the north, especially Lombardy and Piedmont, which benefited from industrialization, the south remained peasant-based, rural, traditional, and underdeveloped. Moreover, industrialization and factory production displaced large numbers of artisans in traditional trades such as shoe making and tailoring, as well as small merchants. Poor educational and health conditions and political dissatisfaction completed the list of grievances. Although steamship and labour agents recruited Italian emigrants, their significance as a cause of the exodus was secondary to the economic dislocations. More significant factors that pushed Italians to Canada included rising expectations of social and economic well-being, the low cost of oceanic travel, the example of successful kin and friends who returned from the New World, an expanding labour market, and wages that were often three times what could be earned in Italy.

The movement to Canada was composed mainly of male sojourners, but women were an integral part of the process. As unmarried sisters, they stimulated emigration in the common case when their brothers, because of familial obligations, travelled overseas to help put together the dowry required of young brides. As young women open to courtship, they had a decided influence in changing the make-up of the local marriage market. They did so by adding emigration to the list of desirable attributes in a prospective husband. Young women perceived emigrants as individuals with a future and preferred them over sedentary men. Moreover, as wives and mothers, women participated in the decisions surrounding emigration. Commonly, they encouraged their spouses to emigrate because they believed that only through such separation could they achieve a better life, especially when the burden of a growing family started to be felt. While men were absent, in some cases for several years, the wives of tenant or landed peasants often ran the family farm. Tasks such as ploughing and taking the produce to market now became theirs. Through this economic contribution and the emotional support given to children and other close relatives, women helped to maintain the family until it could be reunited.

World War I abruptly ended the first major wave of Italian emigration to Canada. After hostilities ceased, it was revived because of high unemployment and inflation in Italy. The pre-war levels of immigration were almost reached in 1920, but the numbers then decreased to a few thousand per year as a result of restrictions introduced to immigration legislation. Limitations on the “new immigration” from southeastern Europe that came into prominence after 1880 had long been sought by North American nativists. Capitalizing on the emotions aroused by World War I, they achieved an initial victory with the American literacy test of 1917, which was adopted by Canada two years later. However, the restrictions failed to meet the goal of blocking “undesirable” immigrants since literacy rates had increased significantly in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Therefore a system of national quotas was introduced by the United States in 1921, and these quotas were made even more stringent three years later. For Italians the system meant that annual immigration to the United States, which had exceeded 204,000 before the war, was reduced to 4,000.

Although Canada did not follow suit with its own quota system, after 1921 it did tighten up existing legislation and revive its official policy of allowing in individuals from continental Europe only if they were farmers, agricultural labourers, or domestic servants. Nevertheless, despite the enforcement of this occupational test, the Canadian policy remained relatively more open than the American. Since Italian peasants could legitimately claim to fall within the agricultural category, a significant, if numerically modest, number of immigrants were diverted to Canada through the farm-labour system in the 1920s. Canadian curtailment of immigration was compounded by the new fascist regime in Italy, which beginning in 1927 introduced its own increasingly restrictionist measures. The advent of the Great Depression in 1929 merely brought to a close a movement that had already become severely limited.

Emigration resumed after World War II, and until the mid-1970s almost 7,500,000 Italians left the peninsula, 69 percent for essentially temporary work in the rest of Europe and 32 percent for primarily permanent settlement overseas. Many of the same economic problems that had beset the earlier wave of emigrants remained unresolved and once again motivated people to move elsewhere. But to the long-standing factors such as overpopulation were added shortages of basics, including food, clothing, and fuel, caused by the wartime devastation. Italy also experienced the worst unemployment in Europe. In 1948 its population stood at 47 million, of whom 2 million were unemployed and over 1.5 million farm workers underemployed. The problems were especially acute in southern Italy, which witnessed few benefits from the industrial recovery under way by the 1950s. Furthermore, after the war’s end, Italian families that had been separated by emigration and the ensuing hostilities were anxious to come together again. It was only natural that Italians sought to be reunited with kin in overseas countries at the earliest opportunity.

In contrast to conditions in Italy stood Canada with its huge territory, natural resources, and population of only 12 million. It now emerged as a major destination for Italian immigration, attracting over half a million arrivals. Unlike the earlier movement, the post-war inflow was strongly permanent in nature. Indeed, the return rate from Canada was the lowest in the world, pointing to a relatively high level of satisfaction: only 10 percent of immigrants repatriated, compared with 15 percent for Australia, 20 for the United States, 24 for Argentina, 36 for Brazil, and 48 for Venezuela. The permanent nature of the post-war movement is further indicated by its almost equal male-female ratio, underlining that this was an immigration of families rather than male sojourners, as had been typical earlier. By 1971 the sex ratio for Italians in Canada was 111 males to 100 females, a sharp departure from the heavily male prewar levels. Moreover, that the immigrants were generally young is evidenced by the fact that the average age during the 1950s was twenty-three.

Initially, policy makers in Canada had worried about a post-war recession, but it soon became apparent that the wartime economic expansion was turning into a boom. Much of the country’s infrastructure was in a state of disrepair, and new projects were necessary if it was to take advantage of opportunities for growth. There were particular shortages of construction workers and unskilled labour, and the Canadian Manufacturers Association, as well as the Canadian National Railways and the railway-contracting firm R.F. Welch Company, pressured the government to open its doors to Italians. There was little doubt in the minds of Canadian employers that Italian and other labour was essential if the country was to rebuild its railways, improve its transportation with new highways and a St Lawrence seaway, exploit its mineral wealth, and expand its cities.

But aside from economic considerations, policy makers in Ottawa were faced with another factor with regard to Italy – international political pressure. The necessity of maintaining a coordinated reconstruction program for western Europe in the face of the emerging Cold War placed Canada, as part of the Western alliance, in a special position vis-à-vis war-torn Italy. It was viewed as a country that could do much to ease Italy’s unemployment through emigration, and thus the political pressure from the Italian left, particularly the Communists. Both the United States and Britain viewed Canada as a sort of safety value for Italy’s economic and political problems and encouraged Ottawa to take an open-door policy on Italian immigration. Moreover, various Italian-Canadian organizations and families, together with other ethnic groups, lobbied the government for the resumption of immigration.

The first step in opening the door to Italy came in 1947 with the signing of a peace treaty by Canada and Ottawa’s abrogation of enemy-alien status for Italian Canadians. The following year Canada established an embassy in Rome and started accepting as immigrants the first sponsored family members. The government initiated a bulk labour program whereby young men were recruited under one- or two-year contracts to meet specific shortages, especially as farm labourers, railway workers, woodworkers, and miners, and it later sought women as domestics.

However, only with the signing of a bilateral agreement on immigration in 1950 did the Italian movement take on mass proportions. The accord followed closely on an opening up of Canadian immigration from Europe generally. Particularly important in the agreement with Italy were new regulations that allowed Italian Canadians to sponsor a wide range of relatives. Pre-war immigrants quickly utilized this route to effect the family reunification that had eluded them for over two decades. Whereas in 1949 the number of Italians entering Canada stood at 7,742, two years later it had more than tripled to 24,351, a figure that would be more or less representative of the yearly inflow throughout the 1950s. In this period, over 80 percent of Italians entered Canada through the sponsorship of relatives. The origin of those who arrived was much influenced by this factor, although individuals who immigrated under the bulk labour program also had the opportunity to initiate their own migration chains.

In general terms, about 80 percent of Italian immigrants came from southern Italy, that is, south of Rome. On a regional basis it can be estimated that almost 18 percent originated from Calabria, 13 percent from Sicily, over 10 percent from both Abruzzi and Molise, 9 percent from Lazio, 8 percent from Puglia, and about 7 percent each from Friuli, Veneto, and Campania. Although other regions were also represented in the movement to Canada, their contribution was numerically negligible, each representing less than 2 percent of the total. With respect to the more specific origin of immigrants, six provinces each contributed more than 5 percent: Campobasso (Molise) with almost 10 percent of the postwar immigration, followed by Cosenza and Catanzaro (both in Calabria) with around 7 percent each, Frosinone (Lazio) with over 6 percent, and Udine (Friuli) and Bari (Puglia) with around 5 percent. However, the post-war movement also contained a new element, political refugees, who, as the result of the arrival of thousands of Italians from Istria, were forced to leave when that area was annexed by Communist Yugoslavia. An important implication of these patterns is that Italian immigration to Canada had a distinctive interregional mix uncharacteristic of Italian migration to other New World destinations.

The 1960s witnessed a decline in Italian immigration over the previous decades as a result of important developments on both sides of the Atlantic. In Canada new regulations, which favoured skilled and professional individuals, opened up immigration beyond European sources while making more difficult the sponsorship of relatives, upon which Italians had relied heavily. Concurrently, the return of economic prosperity in Italy and the introduction of a progressive social safety net reduced the market incentives to leave. As a result, in 1970 Italian immigration dipped below the 10,000 mark for the first time in two decades, and through the 1970s only 48,000 newcomers entered Canada. After 1980 Italian arrivals dwindled to the insignificant number of less than 2,000 per year.

The decennial census of 1991 showed that the 1981 figure of 750,000 for Italian Canadians reporting a single ethnic origin had remained stable. However, if those who designated themselves as Italian Canadians of multiple origin are added to this figure, then the 1991 total rises to almost 1,148,000, an increase of about 276,000 over the previous decade. On a provincial basis the numbers of Italian Canadians (of both single and multiple origin) recorded in 1991 were as follows: Ontario, 701,430; Quebec, 226,645; British Columbia, 111,985; Alberta, 61,240; Manitoba, 17,895; Nova Scotia, 11,915; Saskatchewan, 8,295; New Brunswick, 5,000; Newfoundland, 1,740; Prince Edward Island, 670; Northwest Territories, 515; and Yukon, 450. With regard to the Census Metropolitan Areas, the ten most populated urban centres with large Italian-Canadian communities (single and multiple origin) were Toronto with 387,375; Montreal, 207,315; Vancouver, 60,310; Hamilton, 58,785; St Catharines–Niagara, 41,570; Ottawa-Hull, 32,645; Windsor, 27,130; Calgary, 23,895; Edmonton, 21,585; and London, 15,425.

Post-war estimates of Italian Canadians higher than the census figures have been claimed by community spokespersons and the media, especially in the major cities. However, such claims, which can inflate the official numbers by up to 30 percent, lack credibility in the absence of reliable proof. Moreover, the concern that census statistics may for various reasons miss people of Italian descent must be balanced against the fact that since 1981 the census has permitted respondents to designate two or more ethnic origins. Hence, even individuals with less than half Italian ancestry could report that ethnicity, casting a rather wide net that would more than compensate for any non-reporting. The census thus remains the most reasonable estimate of the size of the Italian-Canadian community.