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Beyond “We Built This Country’: A Critical Look at Narratives of Immigrant Labour

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

lack and white photos of the Toronto Armouries on University Avenue under construction
Toronto Armouries on University Avenue under construction. Toronto, Canada. 1892. (Wikimedia Commons).

“We built this country”: It’s a phrase many Italian-Montrealers have heard at kitchen tables over coffee, when, after a long meal, our nonni settle in to tell stories of work, life, and immigration. We’ve also heard it from politicians, as they reassure us that they recognize the value of the “immigrants who built this country.” We’ve heard it in history classes, school and conference presentations, newscasts, articles, to the point that it has become a casual statement that often goes uncontested.

There is truth to it: whether through populating schemes, construction jobs, or dangerous, cheap labour, immigrants did, in many cases, physically build the infrastructure that make up our cities. Over 15,000 Italians worked in Toronto’s construction industry by the 1960s. Of these workers, many found jobs in residential construction. It was immigrants whose bodies were used to take up and build space in order to claim more land and expand the settler-state for so-called Canada.

While it is important to remember this labour, we can’t romanticize it, which is what this statement is often deployed to do.Going beyond “we built this country” means understanding the links between immigration and colonialism and, even more specifically, how immigration is used as a colonial tool. This phrase is meant to celebrate the place of our immigrant families in the make-up of Canada. But it’s also been used in a strategic way to erase and ignore Indigenous histories and realities, as does the renaming and division of land, with the roads and cities we built. It deflects our focus from our community’s complicity in settler-colonialism through an uncritical celebration of labourers who we, and all of so-called Canada, have been told we should be thankful for.

If we did, in fact, “build this country,” then when we look back on our community’s immigrant past, we must also reflect on the Italian-Canadian community’s role in colonialism. It doesn’t mean that we forget the many sacrifices made and difficulties faced by our families, but that we recognize the cost of their experiences beyond just ourselves. As builders of this country, it is our duty to be present in the fight for land back through reconciliation, education, and solidarity.

Learn more about whose land you're on.

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