Canada has a reputation as a welcoming country for immigrants, and the city of Toronto is known as one of the most multicultural cities in the world. But there was a time when the Canadians were not so Canadian in matters of inclusion. The 1982 World Cup, which brought hundreds of thousands of Italian immigrants into the streets of Toronto, proved to be a turning point.
As the whistle signaled the end of the 1982 World Cup final in Madrid, close to a half a million Italian Canadians rushed outside and spilled onto St. Clair Avenue West, or Corso Italia, then the main artery of Toronto’s Italian immigrant community. This celebration of Italy’s 3-1 victory over Germany – the team’s first World Cup triumph in 44 years – was described by the journalists covering the event as the largest gathering of people celebrating a sporting event that had ever taken place in Canada. When the Toronto Blue Jays won their first World Series a decade later, only 250,000 people joined the team’s victory parade down Yonge Street. And in February 2010, when the Canadian men’s hockey team captured Olympic gold after Sidney Crosby’s dramatic golden goal, those who celebrated on the city’s streets only reached the tens of thousands.
The images of a sea of flag-waving, horn-honking Italian Canadians have since become the stuff of lore. But the celebration was more than just a spur-of-the-moment gushing of people onto the streets. In Toronto, it remains a moment imbued with socio-political significance, not only for Italian immigrants in Toronto, but also for the city’s multicultural identity. Football journalist and author John Doyle recently commented on Toronto’s multiculturalism and its expression through football, stating, “It is a truth universally accepted here [in Toronto] that if you can’t be the host country, this is the best place to experience a World Cup.” For Doyle, football has developed into “a vital sinew of the city, part of its muscle and body tissue.”
Along with New York City, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo, and Chicago, Toronto hosts one of the largest communities of Italians outside of Italy. While Italians today are one of the most well-established and influential immigrant groups in Toronto and Canada more generally, this was not always the case. In fact, the Toronto that greeted many of these immigrants was extremely unfriendly, hostile, and cold – both literally and figuratively.
Historians have largely focused their studies on Italians that made their transatlantic voyages to Canada following the Second World War, but many also arrived between the beginning of the movement for Italian unification and the eve of World War II. Both groups of immigrants endured difficulties. The first group – comprised primarily of seasonal laborers, fruit vendors, and tailors – sought to accumulate a small nest egg for their families before returning home. Commonly termed “navies,” they were unwelcome because they did not possess the “founding stock” that Canadians felt was needed – as a colony of Great Britain – to settle the barren prairies. Following the Second World War, the volume of Italian immigrants reached unprecedented levels thanks not only to worsening conditions at home and the process of chain migration, but also a slackening of restrictions against family reunification in the 1952 Immigration Act. During the 1950s, just over 25,000 Italians entered Canada each year, and the country enjoyed one of world’s lowest repatriation rates. Between 1951 and 1961, approximately 90,000 Italians, or 40 percent of all Italians who arrived in Canada during this decade, settled in Toronto.
Many of these Italian immigrants did not anticipate the housing shortages, unsafe working conditions, living costs, unemployment, and language problems they would encounter. My mother, who arrived as a young girl, was forced to sit while the Canadian national anthem played each morning at school because it “did not belong to her.” For most of the school day, she was locked in the cubby room because she couldn’t speak English. Italian immigrants attempted to imitate features of their hometowns in Toronto’s urban core, establishing their own newspapers and radio stations, and creating mutual aid organizations, parishes, and businesses that accommodated their interests. They also began to drift towards certain neighbourhoods that promised affordable housing. One Little Italy neighbourhood developed out of the St. Clair Avenue and Dufferin Street intersection.
Engaging with calcio was one of the most important ways Toronto’s Italians attempted to retain a sense of ethnic identity. Many immigrants – often men – would gather in espresso bars, huddling around transistor radios in an effort to follow live soccer matches in Italy. Others started their own soccer teams, such as the Friuli Soccer Club and Team Italia. Law enforcement officials, fearful that the small gatherings were part of a larger conspiracy against the state, frequented these games and often dispersed them. Likewise, to the Canadian general public and the press, soccer indicated an alien ethnicity. The main Toronto newspapers, for instance, had devoted no column inches to the 1978 World Cup. In light of these contestations over public place, the impulsive World Cup celebration and the reaction to it is significant.
As the opening match between Belgium and Argentina approached, a number of factors began to coalesce, providing Italian immigrants with a renewed self-confidence. In March 1982, the Liberal administration of Pierre Trudeau instituted the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guaranteed all peoples certain liberties. Italians in Canada also began to experience upward mobility, economic success, more stable living and employment conditions, and better educational opportunities for their children. Soccer too, benefited from these changes. For the first time in history, the CBC purchased the rights to the FIFA World Cup tournament, recognizing the importance of the game to the various immigrant groups that made up the fabric of the nation. (The Canadian national team, it should be noted, failed to qualify – shocking!)
The Toronto police force had its suspicions that an Italian victory in the World Cup final could erupt into a large celebration. However, press archives suggest that law enforcement was prepared for neither the size nor the peacefulness of the celebration that transpired. The Globe and Mail notes that police closed roads in Little Italy in advance of the match and deployed “more than 100 extra police officers… and an emergency task force command post set up at St. Clair School.” The emergency command post in the heart of the Italian immigrant community ultimately proved to be a waste of resources. The day after the final, the same newspaper featured the celebration on its front page, quoting a police officer as saying, “Everybody’s been having a good time – no trouble at all.” A few days later, the Italian language Il Corriere Canadese wrote, “Better late than never! It has taken an eternity for an English-language newspaper to understand that Italians can be good Italians and excellent Canadian citizens.” In earlier years, police officers had dispersed small groups of Italian men gathered around transistor radios. The celebration however, saw the Italian community in Toronto claim the public space it was once forced to abandon.
One of the most iconic images of the day is of a dump truck, painted in the Italian colours, draped with Italian flags, parked in the middle of Corso Italia, and overwhelmed by Italian fans. It is an image drenched in symbolism, a clear and overt symbol of the construction industry that employed the majority of post-war Italian immigrants who built and developed much of Toronto’s infrastructure. It is not only evidence of an Italian community willing to take ownership of this part of its identity, but also of a Canadian press that, in making the image one of the focal points of its coverage, seemed to indicate that the group’s contributions to the city were worthy of celebration.
The fact that the event was featured in a number of front-page stories and photographs is evidence of how special the event was to the Italian community, and the city of Toronto and its growing multicultural identity. After the tournament, Prime Minister Trudeau wrote a congratulatory letter to Sandro Pertini, the prime minister of Italy: “Auguri Azzurri! Canadians join with the people of your country in saluting the victory of the Italian team in World Cup competition. We applaud Italy’s achievement, and offer you our heartiest congratulations. VIVA ITALIA!” In this way, Trudeau recognized the importance of soccer to the identity of Canada’s Italian community, and illustrated that the Italians in Canada were worthy of both acceptance and respect in a multicultural nation. The pertinence of this celebration to the development of multiculturalism in Toronto was discussed by the newspaper Il Tevere, which wrote that the celebration was successful because of the “jubilant participation from not only the Italo-Canadians but from Canadians of all backgrounds. Imagine. People from diverse cultures joining as one, as Canadians to celebrate the victory of the Azzurri team. What could be more Canadian that that?”
Over two decades later, as Fabio Grosso slotted the ball past French goalkeeper Fabien Barthez in the 2006 World Cup final, Corso Italia in Toronto was once again the setting of joyous bedlam. In the days leading up to the final, the Toronto Star inquired, “Will we party like it’s 1982?” The images from both festivities are almost identical, but the more recent celebration lacked the socio-political significance of its predecessor. Additionally, these street celebrations are no longer specific to the Italian community. Similar celebrations, albeit smaller in size, have erupted in the ethnic enclaves of Toronto’s other immigrant groups since 1982. On the morning of the 1982 World Cup final, the Toronto Star ran an article with the headline, “Don’t read World Cup interest as soccer interest,” dismissing the significance of the sport to the city. The paper could not have been more wrong, nor could it have anticipated the influence that evening’s events would have on the future of the city. As John Doyle reflected decades later, “Across all the divides in the world and across the multiple ethnic neighbourhoods of Toronto, soccer is the lingua franca, the link that fastens us together.”
Amanda Coletta is a Director of Development and Communications for the G8/G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She has written for various outlets about sports mega-events, European migration, and her beloved Juventus. Amanda is on Twitter at @.