The City of Toronto and many cities throughout this country were built by hard working immigrants that formed our foundation one brick at a time. Immigration from Portugal, Italy, Poland and others traveled to this country to have a better life and in doing so had a major impact on many buildings and infrastructures not only in Canada, but also in the United States.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Canadian immigration policy remained highly restrictive, preventing the migration of displaced persons, refugees, and other immigrants.
In the late 1940’s, Italians were removed from the enemy alien list, promoting the largest wave of Italian immigration to Canada. Between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s, approximately 20,000-30,000 Italians immigrated to Canada each year. Many Italians came to Canada on government-sponsored one-year contracts to work in industries with labour shortages, however, the majority of Italian immigrants during this period arrived through the process of chain-migration in which family members already in Canada sponsored their relatives from abroad. The number of Italian immigrants decreased significantly in the late 1960s as the Italian economy experienced a period of growth and recovery, removing one of the primary incentives for emigration.
Immigrants faced many difficulties and challenges as they learned the language and adjusted to the rhythm of life in their new country. The majority of Portuguese and Italian immigrants travelled to Canada by ocean liner, landing at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The felling’s of unfamiliarity associated with immigration often began during the voyage. When many folks got to their destinations, it wasn’t easy to blend into a new society and find work. Most of the labourer and grunt work was done by immigrants, especially in the construction and infrastructure sectors.
Canada was a completely unknown world for the Portuguese and other ethnic groups. The men who came by boat load were soon separated from each other and incapable of speaking any French or English, they lived virtual isolation for months on end. Their only means of communication was with hand gestures they invented to explain to employers and fellow workers their needs or problems.
The Portuguese and Italian communities were often marginalized in the mid-part of the 20th century and the construction industry offered a venue for them to respond collectively and make their voices heard on issues of social justice and equal rights. Companies would take advantage of many of these workers by having them work long hours and compromise on the lack of safety precautions. Many ethnics died during these early times in trying to construct these large buildings and infrastructure projects. There is a report that from 1950 to 1979 there were 241 construction workplace deaths reported in Toronto.
The human costs of building this city is incredibly high. Many people believe that the death rate was actually much higher as those reported are just the ones recorded in news reports and don’t include workers who died after an incident or from long-term occupational illness from exposure to asbestos and other poisons that were never detected. Many of these men were just a number as nobody really cared, because there were hundreds of other ethnic men that would take that job.
Portuguese Canadians struggled for decades and were one of the most underprivileged ethnic groups in Canada. During the 1960s, many Portuguese families opened all types of retail outlets from bakeries to clothing stores. But in the 1970s, second and subsequent generation Portuguese Canadians were better educated and integrated into Canadian society, and entered fields of high-school teachers, lawyers, and other areas other than construction and labour.
Many of our hard-working relatives made this country what it is today from coast to coast and endured many hard-ships along the way with very little noise and toll on the system.
These men and women who immigrated from Portugal and other countries are the basic foundation of this country and deserve to be recognized for building this country to what it is today.
The legacy of the immigrant workers is visible in the buildings, bridges, subways and roads they built, but little of their history is documented.