By Vince Agro & Charles Criminisi
On the occasion of the HPO’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony, we want to share with you the story of Italians in Hamilton.
Original immigrants from Southern Italy to Hamilton in the later 1800s
The first Italian immigrants came to Hamilton around the time of the Risorgimento, the unification of modern Italy, in the 1870s. They were mostly migrant labourers and skilled trades who came to work in the railways, mining and construction. This small group were the pioneers of southern European immigration. By the turn of the 20th century there were 100 people of Italian extraction amongst the Hamilton population of over 50,000.
Two waves of immigration around World War I and II
The people of Italia, mostly from the south, started coming in greater numbers around the time of the First World War. The societal and political turmoil wrought by the Great War caused Italian citizens to look for a land that would afford them security and opportunity. That land was Canada for many. This country opened its generous arms to them. These people were full of ingenuity, courage as well as love and respect for their new home. In their hearts and minds were the folklore and lessons learned over centuries. It is this group that formed the foundation for all Italians that have followed the path forged in those early days of the 20th century.
World War II impacted the second wave of Italian immigration to Hamilton. The latter years of that second war were waged primarily in the Italian peninsula as the Allies drove Germany back and was part of the beginning of the end of the conflict. The war had a devastating effect on Italy, leaving it decimated with no work, no opportunity and no future for it’s many young men and women. Nevertheless, the loss and devastation of the war was a boon to Canada and particularly Hamilton. As our young country came out of the war the industrial resurgence required young strong workers. This demand was fed by the supply of Italians fleeing their homeland for a better life.
For the most part, Canada provided a hospitable environment and generous support for these two waves of immigration. Having said that there was one dark and disturbing episode in the story of Italians coming to Hamilton. It is that of the internment of Italian Canadians starting in June 1940. Approximately 700 of them were interned without due process. 70 of those were from Hamilton. This was a difficult time. Many felt conflict between assimilation into one’s chosen land versus maintaining allegiance to the motherland that often occurs in times of war. The choice was clear for many Italian immigrants as they came due to poverty and adversity seeking opportunity. Many of them fought for Canada in the war. Regardless of the motivations and ideologies of those who were interned, the issue of due process looms large. This episode evokes Verdi’s, La Forza del Destino overture, a powerful piece that depicts the force of destiny, and evokes thoughts of the incredible gamble immigrants take when they leave their country
It is no surprise that Italians tended to settle in certain neighbourhoods, often following those from the same regions they came from. Southern Italians tended to initially live in the North End, focused around James Street from Cannon to the Bay. As they became more affluent they initially moved to the Mountain. Those from central and northern Italy, for the most part, migrated to Barton Street East and eventually out to Stoney Creek.
As noted earlier in this piece, most Italian immigrants came here for work. For most, that was work in the burgeoning construction and industrial sectors that provided well paying positions with excellent benefits including pensions. Hamilton had an abundance of these jobs at iconic companies such as Dofasco, Westinghouse, Coppley, Dufferin and Pigott. The City’s growth and prosperity, particularly in the 20th century was in large part due to have a workforce that was ready and willing. Italian immigrants were a large component of this and contributed immensely to Hamilton’s industrial growth and prominence.
Rise into business and politics
Whereas the immigrants, for the most part, chose work in industry, trades and the like, they did not want this for their children. They wanted their offspring to have a better life. Education was the way forward and provided a portal to the professions in law, medicine, teaching, engineering and nursing. These tended to be the first advances for the children of the immigrant. Others eventually went to business school, in turn, leading to other more financially lucrative endeavours. As such, it is no surprise that Italians in Hamilton have become so successful. With affluence came opportunities to give back to the community via careers in politics, community boards and the like. With this more recent development, the descendants of those early immigrants are having a significant impact on the community at large.
Hamilton citizens of Italian descent now number over 80,000. They are represented in all walks of life and hold leadership positions in virtually every facet of our community. We no longer distinguish an Italian Canadian from a Canadian. Italians have contributed to the fabric of our great City.