Life in Canada:

Late 19th Century to World War II

My dad always talked about the 1914 Hillside Mine disaster. My dad's friend's grandfather and his two uncles all got killed in that mine. And they were all good friends. They were very close family friends. Other than that, he just said it was a dangerous job, I mean the safety conditions weren't there.

Peter Butti, son of an enemy alien, video interview, Columbus Centre Collection

As early as the 1500s, the peoples of the Italian peninsula travelled to find work. However, the mass migration of Italians began after the unification of Italy in 1861. Canada was not the first choice for many Italians during this period.

Between 1876 and 1942, roughly 18.5 million Italians migrated to other parts of Europe, Northern Africa, Australia, and North and South America. The United States was also a primary destination due to greater industrialization and need of labour. Between 1890 and 1920, 14.5 million Italians migrated to the United States. Only 126,000 came to Canada, which needed cheap labour for resource extraction, factory work and construction. As Italians travelled abroad, they brought with them cultural and political practices that had originated in Italy.

Life as a migrant was difficult. Italians were given some of the most laborious and dangerous jobs. They lacked job security and experienced discrimination on and off the job. With low wages, and in an effort to save money, they often lived a frugal lifestyle.


Early Businesses

Despite the hardships they faced as migrants in Canada, some Italians went into business for themselves and provided services within their communities and beyond. Medical practices, shoe repair shops, and grocery stores became a staple of Italian neighbourhoods. These were often family businesses with husbands, wives and children working together.

The Entrepreneur

Contracting was another popular vocation. Toronto’s James Franceschini came from humble beginnings and became a millionaire. He established Dufferin Construction and received numerous lucrative contracts, from different provincial governments, to work on road construction and other projects.