New project looks at the builders behind the buildings

The Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies recently launched “City Builders: An Oral History of Immigrant Construction Workers in Postwar Toronto,” a public history and research project, with funding from the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 183, the largest construction union in North America.

•Construction of the Ross Social Sciences and Humanities Building, named after Murray Ross, York University's first president, who is seen in this photo seating at a desk. Photo by Leo Harrison, September 12, 1964. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram negatives fonds, ASC02000: https://digital.library.yorku.ca/islandora/object/yul:87912

Construction of the Ross Social Sciences & Humanities Building, named after Murray Ross, York University’s first president, who is seen in this photo sitting at a desk. Photo by Leo Harrison, Sept. 12, 1964. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC02000: https://digital.library.yorku.ca/islandora/object/yul:87912

“The project aims to educate the public about the various struggles and achievements of  immigrant construction workers on whose hands and backs Toronto was built, and improve our understanding of some of the city’s most vital working class communities,” said Gilberto Fernandes (PhD ’14), a postdoctoral visitor at the Robarts Centre who is coordinating the project.

•Italian-Canadian construction workers on strike gathered at the Italo Canadian Recreation Club (or Brandon Hall) on August 6, 1960. Photo by Jack Judges. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram negatives fonds, ASC08255: https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/6686

Italian-Canadian construction workers on strike gathered at the Italo Canadian Recreation Club (or Brandon Hall) on Aug. 6, 1960. Photo by Jack Judges. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC08255: https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/6686

Through a series of interviews with 40 retired members of Local 183, the project’s research team will record and digitize stories about the experiences, goals, struggles and achievements of these postwar construction workers. They will produce videos and a short documentary to be featured in a multimedia exhibition and website dedicated to Toronto’s construction history.

•Cement Masons with the American Federation of Labor Local 598 picketing outside Moss Park Armoury construction site on June 11, 1965. Photo by Bill Russell. Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram negatives fonds, ASC08226: https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/6698

Cement Masons with the American Federation of Labor Local 598 picketing outside Moss Park Armoury construction site on June 11, 1965. Photo by Bill Russell. Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC08226: https://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/handle/10315/6698

The construction industry, employed largely by immigrants and their direct descendants, was instrumental in the development of metropolitan Toronto, especially after the Second World War, when the bulk of the city’s infrastructure and its residential and commercial areas were built. Most of these immigrant workers began as unskilled or semi-skilled labourers in this formerly non-unionized industry, known for its high rates of accidents, wage theft and poor working conditions. Today, these immigrants and their children have changed the face of the construction industry, as owners of major development companies and members of regulatory and advocacy organizations, including unions.

“We are thrilled to support this project,” said Gabrielle Slowey, associate professor in the Department of Political Science and director of the Robarts Centre. “Migration, labour and urbanization are central themes in Canadian studies, and the stories of these construction workers and their families need to be heard, lest we forget that our city and its infrastructure exist in a large part thanks to these workers’ dreams and the toil it takes to achieve them.”

The materials will be housed in the Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections, York University Libraries. The project is expected to be completed by September 2018.

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