With Italian-sounding names recently having been featured in newspaper articles describing less than exemplary conduct, I asked an old Italian man if he felt integrated into Quebec society. He answered: “I have my integrity — that should be enough.” Though a handful of Quebecers of Italian origin have been publicly implicated in activities outlawed by the established rules, the overwhelming majority are perfectly commendable citizens who work in all sectors of society. Yet it is not always flattering to be identified as Italian. So much so that an Italian who has improved his lot or, even worse, managed to become wealthy (especially in the construction business), is often suspected of maintaining ties with the Mafia. This sad combination, which has lasted too long, reflects the misunderstandings, conflicts and inevitable prejudices that have marked the long journey of Italians in Quebec.
The first Italians arrived in Montreal at the end of the 19th century. There were some 5,000 by 1905, most working in the mines, logging camps and on the railroad. Many were men who had no intention of settling here. They had hoped to go back as soon as they had saved enough money to buy a plot of land, or provide their daughters with a dowry. A good number of them were illiterate. Poorly paid and badly housed, they lived in “dangerous insalubrious conditions and promiscuity,” according to the newspapers of the times. Looked down on and without resources, they (including my grandfather) became easy prey for powerful employment agents: a mafia that demanded a tax for jobs and whose role was to deliver docile, cheap labour to employers. A form of near-slavery.
More than 10 million Italians immigrated during that period (1890 to 1914) to the two Americas. Many of these immigrants came from southern regions of the country where, several years before, landowners had organized a militia whose goal was to repress peasant revolts and spread terror through the countryside. That’s how the Mafia came to be. Among the indigent peasant class, these Mafiosi inspired both fear and admiration to the point that the expression “fare la mafia,” today, means “strutting.” This Mafia culture and the lack of civic spirit (or amoral familism that puts family interests over social responsibility), common in regions where the state is as corrupt as it is reviled, have long since crossed the Atlantic.
Italian immigration practically stopped during the fascist regime (1922-1943). Nevertheless, Montreal’s small Italian community was subjected to its propaganda even within the churches, and except for a small minority, they adhered to the fascist ideology — less out of political conviction, and more to enjoy the psychological benefits of belonging to a nation whose Duce was adulated not only by the Vatican (after the Concordat), but also by the heads of foreign governments, including Mackenzie King. The party quickly ended when fascist Italy declared war on France. Hundreds of Italians, residents of Montreal, would be arrested and imprisoned in Petawawa.
When Italian immigration picked up again after the Second World War, 90 per cent of Italians who settled in Quebec between 1947 and 1970 were sponsored by a family member. Entire villages emptied out, creating such demographic imbalances and economic difficulties that emigration became a self-generating process. Sponsorship explains why nearly a third of all Quebecers of Italian background came from Molise. Others came from various regions, but many were from Calabria and Sicily where the ‘Ndrangheta and the Mafia flourished, and spread from there across the world. Most of them chose to settle in Montreal alongside tens of thousands of rural Quebecers. This was a time of intense urbanization and a building boom (the Metropolitan Expressway, the métro system, new suburbs, schools, roads, etc.) whose apotheosis would come with Expo 67. Among the Italians who found work as labourers or skilled tradesmen, some became contractors, often ending up quite prosperous. They derived their wealth from within: at their disposal they had thousands of former peasants ready to accept the hardest working conditions. (My father, like so many others, had to work an hour or two every day without salary for the right to return to the site the next day.) It is, however, untrue to think, despite the great attention given in the media to a few individuals, that the construction industry is their exclusive domain. The 2001 census showed that there were only 6,595 Italians (including 860 women) in this sector, corresponding to some 5 per cent of the total.