For first generation Quebecers, failure was not an option...
Immigration is often analyzed in terms of economic performance. There are people who assert that Quebec needs immigrants to continue to grow, while others regard immigrants as a burden on Quebec’s social system. Yet, many immigrants and their families come to Quebec in pursuit of prosperity. My family is one among countless others who did just that.
Like so many Montrealers of my generation, I grew up in an immigrant household, in an immigrant neighbourhood nurturing an immigrant mentality. The vision was unequivocal from the outset. My father had crossed the Atlantic in the early 1950s with one clear objective: leave behind a war-torn Europe to start a new life in the new world, and to prosper. The pursuit of prosperity was the reason both my parents immigrated.
Growing up first-generation Italo-Québécois was, therefore, a test of our ability to deliver on the promise of prosperity. Failure, for my cohort of immigrant families, was never an option.
During the boom days of immigration, many an immigrant Italian family operated very much like a cooperative. Every year, in the early ‘60s, my family - among the first to immigrate in its circle of extended relatives - received new recruits. These were predominantly aunts and uncles arriving from Italy seeking prosperity. The stories about “America” that were told back home in southern Italian hamlets conjured visions of a prosperous new land, one where wealth abounded and roads were paved in gold.
Arriving in Montreal in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s quickly dispelled the myth of opulence for the hundreds of thousands of newcomers. They readily discovered the roads were not paved in gold. In fact, many were not paved at all.
Still, making the trip from the Port of Naples or the Port of Genoa to Montreal was the first step towards prosperity. Once here, the new immigrants very quickly took on their roles. The elderly looked after the children while the men and women went to work, sometimes in two or three jobs. Work was seen as the key to prosperity.
Frequently, those who could not find a job would create one for themselves and their extended families. Hardworking, resilient, determined and ingenious, many Italian immigrants began small mom-and-pop operations. Many of these small businesses flourished. Some, like the Saputo Group or Les Construction Sept Frères, became giants in their industry.
While the parents toiled at various jobs, the children were taught the value of work, what I like to call “work ethics”. These included the principles of a job well-done, standards of excellence, ideals of accomplishments and a promise that if you let this value system govern your work or your studies, you too will be prosperous.
The pursuit of prosperity has incited entire generations to immigrate. This same quest thrust first generation Italo-Quebecers out of poor immigrant neighbourhoods. Prosperity has been and remains a positive force of integration for many new Quebecers.