- The Italians Who Built Toronto: Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950-1980 by Stefano Agnoletto
In The Italians Who Built Toronto: Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry 1950-1980, Stefano Agnoletto takes readers into Toronto’s construction trades during the post-war economic boom. His focus is the role of Italians in that boom and their “building of Toronto.” Agnoletto seeks to build on the work of other pioneers in this field such as Robert Harney, Franca Iacovetta, and Roberto Perin by creating a book that focuses explicitly on the labour and business history of Italians and their “ethnic niche,” (189) as he puts it, as tens of thousands of Italians in post-war Toronto became employed in numerous construction trades from bricklayers, carpenters, labourers, and cement finishers. His focus is primarily on the “structural and cultural factors” (16) that were central to Italians in the construction industry and he also debunks the idea that Italians were not supportive or indifferent to unionization in this period.
The book centers on how the creation of ethnicity, such as Italians becoming Italians in Toronto, was connected to macro-economic conjunctures, like a construction boom. Italians discovered themselves, he argues, as members of a larger exploited ethnic group and this was a factor in their developing class consciousness. The book’s focus on economics and structural economic forces as well as its plethora of statistical information are its greatest strengths, reflecting Agnoletto’s expertise and training as a holder of a PhD in Economic History. While the book tries to detail the cultural [End Page 278] elements behind the Italians in the construction trades, it falls slightly short of the mark. Greater exploration of the social history of the historical actors, including gender analysis, is missing here. Yet his in-depth coverage of economic forces and prevalent use of statistics will prove essential reading for those academics involved in or interested in the business history of the construction trades and Italians in post-war Toronto.
Agnoletto begins his inquiry by examining immigration policy and the gradual shift in how the predominately British city of Toronto evolved into a multicultural centre. In these early chapters he pays homage to earlier works on immigration history, almost to a fault, because we are not introduced to the Italians until Chapter 3 and their involvement in the construction industry, the main focus of the book, doesn’t get discussed until Chapter 5. While the opening chapters are incredibly detailed and filled with troves of statistical data (with seventeen graphs at the conclusion of just Chapter 2) it still feels like a familiar trip. Where the book really takes off is when Agnoletto takes us into the messy world of the construction industry and the Italians involvement in it. He convincing demonstrates how they filled a labour need in the city and subsequently entered an “ethnic niche.” He argues that the majority of Italian immigrants didn’t choose the construction industry; it was the only choice available. Agnoletto’s structural economic data makes this case rather easily and convincingly.
In Chapter 5 we are introduced to more of the social history of the workers. He draws on oral histories and interviews with Italians in the post-war Toronto community and the reader does get a good opportunity to hear from these workers, often with the use of large block quotations. These workers give us a sense of the often dangerous and precarious working conditions that they faced. Especially revealing is what Agnoletto refers to as the “jungle” of the industry where labour was in such high demand that unsafe working environments were common. Many Italian workers were left with disabling construction related injuries. The intensely competitive industry also produced interesting class dynamics with workers sometimes becoming contractors overnight and then turning around to hire their former fellow workers. While hearing from the workers themselves is beneficial to the overall study, at times the book fails to develop the interesting...