Of all the immigrants Montreal has welcomed since its founding, the Italians have had the greatest impact on the city. From the arts to politics, agriculture, real estate, gastronomy and sports, the Italian community has influenced every sector of life in Montreal.
If we were to recall the Italian Montrealers who have left an indelible mark on Montreal, among the names that most often come to mind are Saputo (Lino and Joey), Gattuso (Pasquale) and Catelli (Carlo Onorato). While these are obvious examples, they tend to overshadow others who also played an important, if somewhat more modest, role in Montreal’s 375 years.
The Italian presence on Quebec soil goes back to the founding of Montreal. Italian settlers served in the French regiment of Carignan-Salières (1670) to help fight the Iroquois. In return, the King of France gave them land. More Italian migrants arrived, and in 1860, 60 Italian families called Montreal home.
Things were not going so well back in Italy at the time. With the abolishment of the feudal system, the government redistributed the land to the people, 70% of whom subsequently lived off agriculture, but on plots that were far too small to meet their needs. To add insult to injury, the country was hit with an outbreak of malaria; 600,000 Italians were affected. And on top of all that, malnutrition was responsible for an epidemic of pellagra, which struck 104,000 people. These harsh conditions gave rise to the first major wave of emigration. From 1900 to 1915, more than eight million Italians left their country. Many headed for Europe, while others ended up in North America, especially the United States, and a few settled in Quebec, primarily in Montreal.
It would be accurate to state that the beginning of the 20th century marked the birth of Montreal’s Italian community. In 1901, 1,400 Italians lived in the city, to the north of Old Montreal, in the area now known as Chinatown. Ten years later, their numbers had reached 7,000, and they had moved further north, near Saint-Laurent Boulevard, close to the Mile-End railway station, which would eventually be replaced by the Jean-Talon station.
In 1910, this area became the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense parish, also known by its Italian name, Madonna della Difesa, the first Italian parish in Canada. It is located along Saint-Laurent Boulevard, with Saint-Zotique and Jean-Talon streets marking its limits. Educational, assistance, recreational and sports establishments quickly sprung up in the community. It was here that, in 1927, the grand Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church was inaugurated. In 2002, the Government of Canada designated this church a national historic site.
The neighbourhood saw the development of many businesses, including grocery stores, restaurants and various shops, along with industries, such as the Catelli factory and the Montreal Street Railways workshops.
Italian immigrants continued to arrive, but not all the newcomers found their new lives easy. Former farmers and now found themselves working in factories. Many had difficulty adjusting. Moreover, fascism was on the rise in Italy, and many Italian Montrealers supported the movement. When Canada joined the Second World War, the Montreal Italian community saw many of its members targeted. Some were imprisoned while others lost their jobs. Italian newspapers were closed down. After the war, things calmed down and the period between 1946 and 1960 saw a second, bigger, wave of Italian immigration. Thousands of Italian farmers settled in the parish, in the vicinity of the Jean-Talon Market. They planted gardens in yards and back alleys, where they grew tomatoes, broccoli, peppers and other vegetables. It would probably be fair to say that urban agriculture in Montreal originated with them.
In the mid-1950s, numbers show that there were 150,000 Montrealers of Italian descent. This last wave brought with its new businesses, new institutions and new buildings. The neighbourhood became one of the most vibrant in Montreal. Little Italy was born. Viva la Piccola Italia!