The product of two major immigration waves to Canada (one from 1880 until the First World War, and the other from 1950 to 1970), Montréal’s Italian 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 Montréal, Little Italy (Piccola Italia) is known for its buildings’ remarkable architecture and decor, and for being home to a true institution of Montréal’s cityscape: the Jean‑Talon Market.
History of the Neighbourhood
The Italian presence in Québec dates back to the 17th century — in particular, to the arrival of the Carignan-Salières Regiment in New France. This regiment had in its ranks soldiers and officers of Italian descent who chose to settle there in 1668. Others would come with the de Meurons and de Watteville Swiss mercenary regiments that were integrated into the British Army during the War of 1812.
Toward the late 1860s, some 50 Italian families lived in Montréal. These immigrants were primarily from northern Italy and were mostly tradespeople, professional artisans and musicians.
First Italian Immigration Wave and its Contributions
Around 1880, immigrants from southern Italy began to settle in areas now known as Montréal’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, assistance and recreational establishments and 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.
Due to sharing this common space, Italians in Montréal have developed an increasingly strong sense of belonging. Oddly enough, the 1930s 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 and was officially inaugurated in 1934. While at the outset it brought together farmers who came to sell their food, it grew over time to become the largest open‑air market in North America.
Also during this time, the Mile-End train station was replaced with the new Park Avenue Station (now Jean-Talon Station) for transporting passengers. 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 the jewel of the Italian community. 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 Wave
The majority of Italian immigrants 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 Québec welcomed workers from the construction and manufacturing sectors. Despite the decreased flow of Italian immigrants during the 1970s, the Italian population remained the third largest group of European descent on Île de Montréal.
Little by little, some families left Little Italy for other Île de Montréal neighbourhoods or municipalities, such as Villeray, Saint-Léonard, La Salle and Rivière-des-Prairies. It was thanks to newcomers from Haiti and Latin America that Little Italy nonetheless continued to develop and became cosmopolitan.
Community and Cultural Life
Although most Italian Montrealers reside outside the limits of Little Italy (28,000 live in Saint‑Léonard), this neighbourhood 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. There is a “feel of Italy” in the air, especially thanks to the many Italian flags flying proudly in the streets and to the Italian signs of more than 70 shops. 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, inaugurated in 1963.
Many filmmakers have wanted to bring the spirit of Little Italy to the screen. One Sunday in Canada (1961), one of the first documentaries directed by Gilles Carle, explores Montréal’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 the men and women who left southern Italy’s agricultural life in the 1950s to find themselves working in Montréal’s factories.
Just as several buildings in this neighbourhood are remarkable in terms of their architecture, history, and role within the community, some of these places have become key components of the Montréal landscape. This is the case with the Jean-Talon Market, which is still very well attended today and whose activities have been immortalized on the walls of the Montréal 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 observations of clients and merchants.
In 2011, there were 263,565 people of Italian descent dispersed throughout the city of Montréal.