The product of two major Italian immigration cohorts to Canada (one from 1880 until the First World War, and the other from 1950 to 1970), Montreal’s Italian Canadian community has been gathering in the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense parish since 1910. This neighbourhood, nestled within the Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie borough, is located along Saint-Laurent Boulevard, with Saint-Zotique and Jean-Talon streets marking its limits.
Always at the heart of Italian-Canadian community and cultural life in Montreal, Little Italy (Piccola Italia) is known for its buildings’ remarkable architecture and decor. It is also home to a true institution of Montreal’s cityscape: the Jean‑Talon Market.
History of Little Italy
First Italian Immigration Cohorts
Toward the late 1860s, some 50 Italian families lived in Montreal. These immigrants were primarily from northern Italy and were mostly tradespeople, professional artisans and musicians. Around 1880, immigrants from southern Italy began to settle in areas now known as Montreal’s Chinatown and the Quartier Latin. They quickly headed to the city’s north end and built homes on land previously used for agricultural purposes. They worked on building and maintaining the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk railways. At the time of the 1901 Census, close to 1,400 Montrealers were of Italian descent. Ten years later, their number reached 7,000.
The early 1900s were also a time when some Italian immigrants permanently settled in the vicinity of Mile End Station, near Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Bernard Street. This area was accessible by streetcar and provided the additional benefit of having plots of land large enough for growing small vegetable gardens. At that time, cafés and restaurants were already multiplying in the neighbourhood, which allowed residents to carry on their Italian culinary traditions on American soil.
The Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense (Madonna della Difesa) parish was founded in 1910. It quickly brought together educational, mutual assistance and recreational establishments. The area became the heart of the neighbourhood’s social life. It is here, in this oldest Italian parish in Canada, where the magnificent Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church was built in 1919 and inaugurated in 1927. Its interior decor was made in the neo-Renaissance style by the famous stained-glass artist Guido Nincheri, who was also co-architect of the building (see Religious Building). The Government of Canada designated this church a national historic site in 2002.
The neighbourhood saw the development, mostly along the railway line, of various industries, such as the well-known Catelli factory and the Montreal Street Railways workshops. There were also several small businesses, particularly grocery stores, which doubled in number between 1911 and 1916.
By sharing a common space, Italians in Montreal developed an increasingly strong sense of belonging. Oddly enough, the 1930s economic crisis allowed the neighbourhood to grow. Several major public works projects were launched. The former Shamrock lacrosse grounds were converted into the site of the North Market, which is now famously known as the Jean‑Talon Market. The market was officially inaugurated in 1934. While at the outset it brought together farmers who came to sell their food, over time it became one of the largest open‑air market in North America.
It was also around this time that the Mile-End train station was replaced with the new Park Avenue Station (now Jean-Talon Station) for transporting passengers (See Montreal metro). The stone quarries were replaced with municipal buildings, and several local movie theatres opened. In 1936, the art deco building La Casa d’Italia was built in the heart of the neighbourhood, becoming a jewel of the Italian community. As a social gathering place for this community, the famous building was given a facelift in 2009. Since then, it has been housing an archive, a library, an economuseum about Italian immigration, and a 160 seat venue for holding various events.
Second Italian Immigration Cohort
After the Second World War, he majority of Italian immigrants who arrived from Europe between 1946 and 1960 were farmers. They settled around the Jean-Talon Market and the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church. It was in the mid-1950s that this group of 150,000 families truly gave rise to Little Italy.
Between 1961 and 1975, Italian immigration becomes more diverse, and Quebec welcomed workers from the construction and manufacturing sectors. Despite the decreased number of Italian immigrants during the 1970s, the Italian population remained the third largest group of European descent on island of Montreal.
Little by little, some families left Little Italy for other neighbourhoods or municipalities, such as Villeray, Saint-Léonard, La Salle and Rivière-des-Prair ies.Nonetheless, thanks to newcomers from Haiti (see Caribbean-Canadians) and Latin America (see Latin-American Canadians), Little Italy continued to develop while becoming a truly cosmopolitan area.
Community and Cultural Life
Although most Italian Montrealers now reside outside the limits of Little Italy (28,000 live in Saint‑Léonard), Little Italy has remained at the heart of their community and cultural life. This is where they hold Grand Prix celebrations (in June) as well as Montreal’s Italian Week (in August), when a cosmopolitan crowd gathers in a festive atmosphere bringing together various local associations. Soccer tournaments, exhibitions, film screenings, fashion shows, musical performances, cooking workshops, and food and wine tastings are all held one after another, much to the delight of Montrealers.
Tourists visiting the neighbourhood will notice two large arches clearly indicating its limits. The area has a distinct Italian atmosphere, especially thanks to the many Italian flags flying proudly in the streets and to the more than 70 shops with signs in Italian. The area features many cafés, trattorias, small grocery stores, and people who are drawn to the magnificent Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church and the Jean-Talon Market. Players of bocce (an Italian game similar to lawn bowling), meanwhile, gather to play a game in Dante Park which was inaugurated in 1963.
Many filmmakers have wanted to feature the spirit of Little Italy. One Sunday in Canada (1961), one of the first documentaries directed by Gilles Carle, explores Montreal’s Italian community through its pastimes and Sunday activities. Paul Tana’s Caffè Italia (1985) sketches a captivating portrait of this community, which we discover through letters and dramatic re‑enactments. In the 2009 film I Got Up My Courage (Ho fatto il mio coraggio), Giovanni Princigalli presents an account of the difficulties experienced by Italian migrants who left southern Italy’s agricultural life in the 1950s to then work in Montreal’s factories.
Just as several buildings in the neighbourhood are remarkable in terms of their architecture, history, and role within the community, some of these places have become Montreal landmarks. This is the case with the Jean-Talon Market, which is still very popular today. The market is so important that it was immortalized on the walls of the Montreal metro. In 1983, during the construction of the subway system’s blue line, artist Jean-Charles Charuest produced a series of 30 bas‑reliefs for the De Castelnau Station based on his own experiences at the market.