Sunday, March 24, 2019

Columbus Centre & City Builders Toronto

As part of the Myseum Intersections Festival the Columbus Centre is hosting the physical portion of the interactive, multimedia City Builders: A history of immigrant construction workers in postwar Toronto, from March 19 to 31, 2019. Gallery hours are from 6am to 10pm. On the City Builders website you can find oral history videos, a two-part documentary on the immigrant workers, photos, interactive digital maps and timelines as well as biographies and audio recorders - all free of charge to view and some shown in the photos below.

The exhibit chronicles some of the important people and milestones from courageous and hardworking immigrants to Canada who were instrumental in physically building the City of Toronto from the 1950s to the 1970s. Coming to a new country without a lot of money and in many cases not knowing the native language, fighting discrimination and low wages, coupled with dangerous occupations made a demanding life for these tradespersons who sought a better life for themselves and their families.

"The City Builders research and public history project, associated with The Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University, was launched in September 2017, thanks to a generous gift from the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 183. Significant funding was also provided by the Mariano A. Elia Chair in Italian Canadian Studies. Led by Dr. Gilberto Fernandes, the City Builders aims to record, preserve, and divulge the fascinating history of metropolitan Toronto’s construction industry; particularly the working experiences and labour organization of its immigrant workforce after the Second World War."

The videos are available on Youtube and you can use a QR reader to find more information on the traveling exhibits. I watched several of the video interviews and was amazed by the strength of the workers as they had to do almost everything by hand, without modern construction methods or technologies, day after day, many suffering injuries or death while working to build the city that we all enjoy today. One thing I learned was the name of the brick carrying, inverted 'V' device used by bricklayers to carry the heavy bricks; it was called a HOD. Today the bricks are carried on skids moved around site by fork lifts.

It was hard to miss the contributions of Unions in dramatically improving the lives and working conditions of those early, postwar labourers and tradespersons. The strikes, both legal and illegal, brought attention to the plight of the workers and often the arrest of scores of workers. Safety was also a priority for the unions. 
Well published tragedies like the deaths of five Italian workers in an underground fire and the immigrant mother who killed herself when she was arrested trying to feed and cloth her children because living wages weren't paid helped other Canadians realize the extent of the problems facing immigrants in the construction industry. This sentiment led to improved government regulations and safety requirements which drove down the rates of deaths beginning in the late 1960s.

"But the most deadly and famous of construction accidents in Toronto happened on March 17, 1960, St. Patrick’s Day. That evening, a fire broke out in the main shaft of a watermain tunnel being built under the Don River, in the area known as Hoggs Hollow."

Columbus Centre, part of the Villa Charities Campus, is hosting the City Builders traveling exhibition within their Atrium located at 901 Lawrence Avenue West in Toronto. The opening reception took place March 24 amid the grand beauty of the cultural centre which is an important hub for the Italian Canadian community and open to all. "Frequented by more than 100,000 visitors every year, the Columbus Centre is a popular meeting place where people can enjoy the richness of the Italian culture in a Canadian setting; a veritable piazza that brings together art, culture, fitness, and great culinary experiences all under one roof."

The impressive Columbus Centre features dance studios, an art room and music studio, kitchen classroom, gymnasium, swimming pool, yoga and boardrooms, as well as a ballroom, restaurant and extensive outdoor grounds with a wide variety of statues - definitely worth a visit. The grounds also have the Italian Fallen Workers Memorial of Ontario.

See more of the Centre and the exhibition after the jump.

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