City Builders project launches with exhibit, presentation and film screening

Gilberto Fernandes
Gilberto Fernandes

A multi-faceted event at York University will celebrate the launch of City Builders, an exciting project that highlights the fascinating history of Toronto’s construction industry.

The launch for “City Builders: A History of Immigrant Construction Workers in Post-war Toronto” takes place on Sept. 28 with two special events that showcase the research of Gilberto Fernandes, post-doctoral visitor at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies and History Department at York University.

The “City Builders” project aims to record, examine and divulge the history of metropolitan Toronto’s construction industry; particularly the experiences of Irish, Italian and Portuguese immigrant workers and their labour organization after the Second World War. The public history project will include a travelling exhibition, a website, a series of oral history videos and a two-part documentary.

On Sept. 28, there will be an unveiling of the exhibition from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Scott Library Atrium, second floor. The exhibit includes extensive augmented reality-activated digital content. Guests are asked to bring a smartphone or tablet with an Internet connection to access the exhibition’s digital content. Guests will need a QR code reader, or access to the free mobile app izi.Travel. Head/earphones are recommended.

With the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Fernandes and his research team digitized more than 3,200 photos from the Toronto Telegram collection, featuring incredible photos of the city’s landmarks being built and of the historical agents who made them possible.

A presentation and film screening will take place from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Price Family Cinema, Accolade East Building. The screening will feature a two-part documentary about two transformative moments in the history of Toronto’s construction industry and labour movement.

The first episode of the documentary focuses on the successful campaign by the Irish-Canadian labour activist Gerry Gallagher and his Laborers’ Local 183 to improve workplace safety legislation in Ontario in the 1960s and 1970s, when more than 200 construction workers lost their lives building the city, above ground and under.

The second episode focuses on the labour organization of Italian immigrant workers in the residential construction sector, known at the time as “the jungle” due to its terrible working conditions and widespread exploitation by developers and (sub)contractors. Led by the charismatic Bruno Zanini, a petty criminal and aspiring opera singer-turned-labour organizer, and the thundering Charles Irvine, a shillelagh-wielding, Scottish immigrant who was once a banana boat worker, bricklayers, plasterers, carpenters, cement masons and laborers, organized as the Brandon Union Group, engaged in two major strikes in 1960 and 1961 – the latter being one of the largest and most violent in the city’s post-war history.

Other outputs from the project include: a website stacked with interactive digital resources in the form of text, photos, info graphics, audio recordings, videos, maps and timelines; a series of 18 six- to eight-minute-long oral history videos about the lives of retired construction workers and union members.

All of the City Builders’ digital outputs will be freely accessible online after Sept. 28.