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Stefano Agnoletto, The Italians Who Built Toronto: Italian Workers and Contractors in the City’s Housebuilding Industry, 1950-1980

Oxford, Peter Lang, 2014, pp. 360, $ 87.95.

Stefano Agnoletto’s The Italians Who Built Toronto explores the history of Italian migrants in that city’s construction trade in the post-Second World War period. It looks at the cultural and structural factors that resulted in a largely rural and peasant migrant population becoming an urban proletariat. This transition, Agnoletto argues, led to the Italianization of these migrants. This meant that local and regional identities (napoletana, calabrese and others) became less important in a Canadian context where employers sought unskilled Italians. As Agnoletto writes, this need resulted in the creation of an ethnic identity that gave Italians «the right position in the local labour market (i.e. as an unskilled worker or small employer in the Toronto construction industry)» (p. 8). At the same time, however, this broader Italian ethnic grouping gave rise to «a new and powerful class solidarity and awareness» that encouraged exploited workers to turn to unions to improve their working conditions (p. 9). Agnoletto is also interested in how factors such as limited job opportunities in a period of large-scale construction and a demand for low-skilled labourers led to Italian migrants finding work in the construction industry.

Italian migrants, as was the case with most migrant populations, found themselves barred from joining the largely Canadian and Anglophone unions of Toronto’s construction industry. This led to the formation of specifically or majority Italian locals that often engaged in more militant tactics than their non-Italian counterparts.

But this is not simply a study of Italian migrant construction workers. Agnoletto also includes contractors and small and large business owners, many of whom had moved up the ranks from exploited migrant to businessman (and in all these cases it was men who ran their businesses). Such aholistic approach is useful in examining the complexities and nuances of migrant construction work. Instead of a study which pitches exploited labourers against conniving bosses, – though there are examples of that as well – Agnoletto looks at the varied experiences of migrants in this profession: the discrimination against Italians in many vocations that forced so many to work in construction; the precariousness of these migrants in Toronto’s economy where the lack of safety regulations, steady work, and decent pay were the norm; and how some labourers became contractors not only so they could be employed, but also to improve their standard of living. Agnoletto’s book is aided by a number of excellent anecdotes of workers and business owners, many from interviews conducted by the author himself, that provide the reader with a complex and colourful glimpse into the lives and experiences of Italian migrants in Toronto’s construction industry. In one instance you have a contractor extolling «the good old days» prior to unionization in the industry where you could pay labourers whatever you wanted (p. 172). A few pages later, a former labourer recalls how cheap the lives of Italians were to contractors who simply hired others to replace men maimed or killed on the job because of the absence of safety regulations. This is where The Italians Who Built Toronto really sings.

Oral history is an important tool for researchers who want to capture the experiences of groups whose histories have been largely ignored within existing historiographies. It is also an important form of agency for the interviewees in the sense that they are sharing their own stories on their own terms. Considering the significant role that oral history plays in Agnoletto’s book – 35 interviews and one focus group – it is unfortunate that he does not spend more time explaining his oral history methodology. The author states that he is using a «life-course approach» but does not define what this means (p. 13). In addition, Agnoletto did not use «a formal set of questions addressed to each interviewee» which is the usual approach when conducting these kinds of interviews (p. 14). An interview can go in many directions and a list of standard questions aids the interviewer in guiding the discussion as well as ensuring that all key areas of inquiry are addressed. Why the author decided to dispense with a formal set of questions needs further explanation.

The Italians Who Built Toronto is drawn from Agnoletto’s PhD thesis and at times reads more like a dissertation than an academic book. This is most apparent in the book’s last chapter which spends far too much time going over the historiographical and theoretical debates surrounding the subject, which should have been addressed in the introduction, instead of summarizing his original research and drawing some conclusions. This book could also have used a skilled editor as there are some glaring mistakes within it. For example, the head of a provincial government in Ontario is labelled «prime minister» (p. 227) when the actual title is «premier». (In Canada, prime minister is the title of the nation’s leader.) Issues such as these do not detract significantly from Agnoletto’s work but make the publication appear a bit sloppy.

The Italians Who Built Toronto is an important addition to the historiography of Italian migration to Canada in the post-Second World War era. Agnoletto has crafted a well-rounded and nuanced portrait of the construction industry in Toronto and the place of Italian migrants within it. His use of the oral histories of labourers, small contractors and union organizers gives a reader a strong sense of the period, the precariousness of job security and safety, and how labourers became contractors as a way to escape their exploitation as unskilled workers. It also shows how Italian labourers created their own union locals in response to the racism of Anglophone unions and the various tensions between unions within Toronto’s construction industry.This book will be of great benefit to those interested in immigration history, labour history, and oral history.

 

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