City Builders

An Oral History of Immigrant Construction Workers in Postwar Toronto

The City Builders project aims to record, examine, and divulge the history of Toronto's immigrant construction workers after the Second World War. We are gathering extensive qualitative information by way of filmed oral history interviews, by photographing the participant's personal records and artifacts, and by conducting extensive research in Toronto's archives. We are interviewing forty retired members of the Laborers International Union of North America's Local 183, focusing on their goals, struggles, achievements, and thoughts on immigration, construction work, labour organization, Toronto, and other topics of significance for our interviewees. With these materials, we will produce forty short videos and one 15-minute documentary that will be featured in a multimedia exhibition that we are curating. The exhibit's launch and the screening of the documentary will coincide with the 2018 Avie Bennett Conference at York University, taking place on September 2018. All of the materials gathered and produced by this project will be donated to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries, once the project is completed.

Project rationale
The construction industry has been immensely important in the history of metropolitan Toronto, especially after the Second World War, when much of its infrastructure and residential areas were built; mostly by new immigrants and their children. Much has been written about Toronto's urban sprawl and planning, but little comprehensive research has been done about its builders, outside of a few important studies on specific communities, like Italian- and Portuguese-Canadians. These have been the two most prominent groups in this industry, as reflected in Local 183's current membership, which isroughly 60% Portuguese, 20% Italian, and 20% of various backgrounds. Practically all postwar immigrant construction workers started out as unskilled or semi-skilled labourers in a non-unionized industry known for its high rates of work accidents, wage theft, and other abuses. Today, these immigrants and their children are present across the entire spectrum of that industry, including as owners of major developing and construction companies, board members of influential regulatory and advocacy organizations, union executives, trades instructors, and builders involved with the many residential and non-residential construction projects in Toronto. The testimonies and documentation gathered by our researchers will provide a wealth of information and context for other historians and social scientists interested in these topics. The public and digital history outputs resulting from this project will divulge the participants’ stories and educate the general public about the difficult realities experienced by immigrant labourers in the past and improve our understanding about the lives of construction workers, on whose hands and backs Toronto was built.

Sponsors and collaborators:

  • LiUNA Local 183
  • Avie Bennett Historica Chair in Candian History
  • Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections
  • Department of History
  • Global Labour Research Centre
  • Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian-Canadian Studies

Participation in this project is by invitation only. One of our team members will contact the selected participants via phone sometime between October and December to set up a time for our interview. In the meantime, feel free to contact us if you have any questions during the length of this project (September 2017 to September 2018).

Project participants are asked to do the following four steps:

  1.  Read the contents of the introductory package that was mailed to them and sign the consent forms contained therein.
  2. Answer a pre-interview questionnaire, which is available online here: [url].
  3. Meet with one of our researchers for a 40 minute- to 1 hour-long interview, either in English, Italian, Portuguese, or Spanish. We will contact you after receiving your questionnaire answers to set up a date for our interview.
  4. Share with us any personal records (i.e. immigration documents, union membership cards, photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence, etc.) and artifacts (i.e. work tools, work outfits, lunch boxes, buttons, etc.) in their private collections that may help us tell his or her story as a construction worker in Canada. We will photograph those materials the same day of the interview.

Project participants can answer their pre-interview questionnaire here: Pre- interview Questionnaire

Principal investigator:
Gilberto Fernandes, Post-Doctoral Visitor, Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies.

Gilberto Fernandes is a historian of migration, race, and ethnicity in North America, and of Portuguese and other Lusophone diasporas in the world. He graduated from York University's Ph.D. program in History in 2014. His dissertation-turned-monograph is slated for publication with the University of Toronto Press in 2018. Along with his academic work and university teaching, Gilberto is also an active public historian involved with multiple initiatives in Toronto, including the Portuguese Canadian History Project, of which he is co-founder and president. He is also a producer and reporter for a television show on Portugal's international public TV broadcaster RTPi. See here for more information.

For more information contact Dr. Gilberto Fernandes at

YFile (October 23, 2017)  "New project looks at the builders behind the buildings."

Excalibur (November 1, 2017) "Research project highlights Toronto's immigrant construction history"

(Left) 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 fonds, ASC08255.(Right) 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.(Middle) 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 fonds, ASC08226.