Through a series of interactive visuals, the City Builders exhibit looks back at immigrants who built the city and made it their home.
(Photographer unknown. May 22, 1951. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC02519.)
One of the selected items of programming for our 2019 Intersections festival, City Builders: A History of Immigrant Construction Workers in Postwar Toronto tells the fascinating history of those who built Toronto and their labour struggles during the 1950s-70s, by way of displays, artifacts, videos, and augmented-reality digital features.
Along with a team of researchers, developers, producers and designers, Dr. Gilberto Fernandes created this extraordinary exhibit that brings the lost history of immigrant construction workers to life. Fernandes is the creator of the City Builders exhibit and is a historian focusing on migration, race, and ethnicity in North America, and of Portuguese diaspora(s) in the world at York University.
We have featured parts of the online exhibit below, but you can check out multiple timelines, videos, maps, biographies and interactives at Toronto-City-Builders.org.
The City Builders exhibition features a series of interactive maps chronicling key locations in the history of construction workers in Toronto. The map above tracks construction worker deaths over a 29-year period between 1950 and 1979, each dot eulogizing the deceased through a detailed account of their passing. The map includes 241 total deaths, many of them confirmed through public records and newspaper accounts.
Check out the entire map collection here
During the 1940s and 50s, special arrangements by the Federal Government brought tens of thousands of immigrants from Italy and Portugal to Canada. They would later call for their kin in their home countries and generate even larger chains of migration, the majority of them settling in the Greater Toronto Area. Highlighting some of the most important moments in the history of Toronto construction, The City Builders exhibition pays tribute to all immigrants who built Toronto through this interactive timeline.
Check out several other interactive timelines on the City Builders project website.
The City Builders exhibition includes series of candid interviews with over 20 retired construction workers, including the video above. Francisco Bolota, a former professional soccer player in Portugal, the United States, and Canada, who later became a construction worker and expert scaffold installer in Toronto, tells the story of his immigration journey and recalls some of the most dangerous moments of his career.
Check out this video and others on the City Builders Oral History main page.
Few cities in North America have grown as quickly as Toronto has done since the end of the Second World War. With the metro population nearing 6 million people, expect rapid urban transformation to continue well into the future. The juxtaposition of two photos above showcases the construction of the Allen Road overpass, the Yorkdale mall and the surrounding area.
The City Builders Exhibit was supported by York University, LiUNA! Local 183, The Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies and Villa Charities.
Special thanks to Gilberto Fernandes and the York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections for providing both the interactive material and imagery for this piece.
In 1960, one of the worst work-related disasters in Canadian history occurred at Hoggs Hollow in North Toronto. An overhead electrical wire sparked a fire, trapping a dozen men inside of a cavernous shaft. While seven were able to escape alive, five Italian immigrants died in the tragedy. (Artist illustrations of the Hoggs Hollow tragedy. Top: Walter, Toronto Star, March 18, 1960, p. 20. Bottom: Artist unknown, Toronto Telegram, March 24, 1960, p. 3.)
Dr. Fernandes’ exhibit highlights a part of Toronto history that exists right before our eyes—but that few have done justice to. “Despite its central importance to the structural, economic, social, cultural, and political development of the Toronto,” explains Fernandes, “the construction industry has been largely understudied.”
“There are many reasons why the very rich history of Toronto’s construction has not yet been told.”
City Builders covers the rapid transformation of Toronto following the Second World War, but this transformation also brought a wave of organized crime. The map above tracks some of the most significant moments, including a series of bombings during the 1960s.
Part of the difficulty in telling these stories is the language barrier. In looking back at both the construction workers and the communities they lived in, Gilberto is gradually putting the pieces together. “A large portion of [Toronto’s] workforce have been Italian and Portuguese immigrants, which has made it difficult for non-Italian or Portuguese-speaking researchers to connect with these workers and access their histories.”
During the 20th century, Toronto’s construction industry provided immigrants from all corners of the world an opportunity to work. It would take decades, however, to establish and enforce safety measures to protect labourers from unsafe work conditions. The map below highlights workplace fatalities around the Greater Toronto Area.
Gilberto Fernandes hopes that his project will not only highlight the underreported history of immigrant construction workers in Toronto, but will also do justice to the personal and social struggles faced by groups who had to fight to make a living, and in some cases, stay alive.
“[I]t is unwise and irresponsible of us to ignore the many lessons that this history has to offer, along with the memories of those immigrants who lived through a similar time and were largely successful in their personal and collective fights to assert their rights and dignity, improve their lives, and that of their families and communities.”
Part of our 2019 Intersections Festival, The City Builders Exhibition took place at the Columbus Centre between March 19 and March 31. (Image Source: Priam Thomas)