In Montreal, at the corner of Ste-Catherine and Atwater, a statue of Giovanni Caboto – John Cabot reminds people of this Italian who, in the service of England explored Canada at the end of the 1400s.
Other prominent Italians in Quebec’s and Canada’s early history include John da Verrazzano, a 16th century Florentine, who sailed the coast from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia, and father Francesco Giuseppe Bressani, the first European to travel through the interior lands of Quebec and Ontario. However, serious immigration from Italy dates back to 1880s.
Quebec was a Catholic country, thus many of Italians thought the Quebec might be more welcoming than other parts of North America. Montreal was a favourite destination since it was easy to get to from Italy. Besides, the city offered opportunities for unskilled workers. Southern Italians were first to arrive.
These people left the depressed agricultural regions of Sicily, Napoly and Calabria. Many came from impoverished towns near Rome and the more northern regions of Tuscany, Friuli and Piedmont. These men built railways and canals, and worked in forests and mines. Most returned to Italy in the winter during the first years, but later they found full-time work in the cities. They worked for an Italian-based construction industry. Newcomers were recruited by Italians who had come earlier. Actually, the role of “padrone” was very important.
Men called “padrone” were agents for the steamship companies, railroads, mines. Almost all new immigrants passed through padrone’s offices and paid a sum of money. In return, the padrone found them work. One of theses padrones, Mr. Antonio Cordasco, had the workers set up a parade to honour him at which he was crowned King of Labour, in the beginning of the 20th century.
By 1910, there were about 7,000 Italians in Quebec. In Montreal, Italians lived in the parish of Mont-Carmel, in blocks clustered around Dorchester Boulevard (now Rene-Levesque), from St-Laurent (Le Main) Boulevard to St-Denis Street. Many lived in Montcalm and Mile End in the north and Ville Emard and Notre-Dame-de-Grace in the west.
By 1930, half of the Italians lived in Montcalm-Mile-End area, but Italian immigration to Canada slowed in the 1930s and was, obviously, inexisting during the WWII. After the war, Calada lifted the “enemy alien” designation for Italians, and hundreds of thousands immigrated to Quebec. Many of them came under government regulation which favoured keeping families together. On average, each Italian family brought over 15 people, which soon made the Italian community in Quebec the third in the province, after the French and the English.
The north-eastern communities of St-Michel and St-Leonard become particularly attractive to Italian developers. Italians built hundreds of mini-palazzos there and advertised them as dream homes. In fact, Italian workers preffered homes which reflected their success and new status in Canada, so they made sure the homes were bright and airy with chandeliers, marble in the hall and a cantina (a wine cellar, a kitchen and pantry) in the basement.
Italians always knew education was important. Today, most of Italian Quebecers speak French. Of course, most speak Italian at home. The community is highly integrated into all levels of Quebec’s life.