644 Barton Street East
In the 1930s, Benni Ferri played in an Italian band at Casa d’Italia. Benni shares stories from the Casa d’Italia.
This three-storey building was a focal point of Italian life in the late 1930s. It was known as the Casa d’Italia. The building was constructed in 1936, when money was scarce during the Great Depression. The Italian government in Rome contributed a small sum to the project and local Italian-Canadian residents paid the rest. They also donated time and expertise to their community’s project. Except for three paid project overseers, the Casa was constructed entirely by volunteer labour. The Casa d’Italia played a key role in bringing people from different Italian regions together once they arrived in Canada.
Thousands of new immigrant workers from southern and eastern Europe lived in the Barton Street community. They had the hardest, dirtiest and most poorly paid jobs in the big East End plants. After the whistle blew at the end of the day, these workers spent their free time together. They were wage earners, but never forgot that they were also Italians, Poles, Armenians, Ukrainians and so on.
One of the largest groups of newcomers was the Italians. While they were integrating into Canadian society, they were also developing a new sense of their “Italian-ness.” Italy was a fragmented country shortly after the turn of the century, more a network of towns and regions than a national state. Immigrants from different parts of Italy, therefore, had little in common. They often came from different economic backgrounds and spoke different dialects.
Once they arrived in Canada, the Italians tended to repeat this pattern. People from one region set up and frequented their own stores, boardinghouses and churches. They formed their own mutual aid and social societies. But they shared one important new experience — prejudice. They began to band together to cope with a hostile and unfamiliar environment. The Casa d’Italia played a key role in this process.
Two organizations were important in bringing the Italians together. The Sons of Italy was founded in 1922 to promote a sense of unity and pride amongst all of Hamilton’s Italian immigrants. It also offered medical and life insurance. Another popular club founded around this time was the Dopolavoro Society. It offered a variety of social and recreational activities.
The Casa d’Italia was the meeting place for both of these groups. It became a centre of community life. “The Casa d’Italia was a great place to see bands,” recalls one former patron. Another remembers the Casa as a place to play cards and talk about less serious matters after a long day’s work. It also functioned as a school: Up to 200 young Italian immigrants would pack the hall for lessons in Canadian and Italian history. Spaghetti suppers and Sunday night variety shows were popular.
The support received from the fascist government in Rome soon came back to haunt the Casa, the Sons of Italy and the Dopolavoro Society, however. The Canadian government interned scores of Italian-Canadian men from these clubs when Italy entered World War II. Out of fear, fundraising efforts for the Casa ground to a halt. As the war raged on, the community had to sell the building to pay off the mortgage. It was a sad loss. “We were all good-living people. We were not involved in politics. We could care less about politics,” remembers one man who was interned.