Unveiling the Multicultural Tapestry of Brantford
Immigrant Stories from 1900 to 1920
Understanding Canada invites prominent scholars from across the country to explore the topics of identity and the Canadian experience. Series editor: Kyle Pritchard.

Postcard of Brantford [Author’s collection]

In this article, Christina Han draws on her own experiences in contemporary Brantford, Ontario, to examine the lively history of immigration to the city in the first twenty years of the 20th century. Han describes this period in Brantford history as undergoing a multicultural explosion. Examining the growth of three immigrant communities, Italian, Armenian and Chinese, with different immigration trajectories reveals the intricate tapestry of immigrant experiences within the city, how this wave of immigration positioned Brantford as one of the most diverse cities in Canada at that time.

The Forgotten Multicultural Heritage

My journey into Brantford’s history began in 2013 when I moved to the city upon my appointment in the History Program at Laurier Brantford. Having moved from Toronto, my initial impression of the city was that it was predominantly white and not so multicultural. After five years of living in Brantford, however, I came across historical accounts that told a different story. I learned that Brantford was once a thriving industrial hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, making it the third-largest industrial city in Canada in terms of export. The influx of entrepreneurs, inventors, and workers was largely attributed to its prominence as a manufacturing and industrial center. The city’s industries attracted immigrants from around the world, leading to a multicultural explosion and positioning Brantford as one of the most diverse cities in Canada at that time.

My exploration of Brantford’s immigrant history began in 2019 as a class project with my students in “HI323: Memory, Monuments, and Museums” where we together created a public history exhibit called “Brantford: Our Immigrant Stories” unearthing the stories of diverse immigrant communities within the city. Later, collaborating with local heritage and arts organizations, including the Brant Historical Society, the Canadian Industrial Heritage Centre, and Brant Theatre Workshops, the “Immigrant Memories of Brantford” project was launched, shedding light on the experiences of Jewish, Italian, Chinese, and Ukrainian communities through exhibits, plays, and public events.[1]

Mapping the Past

In 2020, I received an Insight Development Grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada to delve into Brantford’s early immigration history. Through deep mapping and digital storytelling, I aimed to visualize the development of the Armenian, Italian, and Chinese communities between 1900 and 1920. The early 20th century marked a crucial phase in Brantford’s immigrant history. The city recognized the significance of immigrants and introduced services to facilitate their assimilation into Canadian society.

This in-depth study drew information from census records, newspapers, and city archives, crafting a comprehensive narrative of Brantford’s immigrant communities during that period. To accomplish this, I used Heurist, a web-based database and mapping interface designed for humanities research.[2] Utilizing data from fire insurance maps of Brantford as the base map, this platform became the repository of information about where people lived, worked, their relationships, and significant events. The deep map created reveals the dynamic aspects of immigrant life during this period. The ability to filter data by criteria such as nationality, marital status, religion, occupation, and more, allows for a multifaceted exploration of immigrant experiences.

 

[1] http://memoriesofbrantford.ca
[2] https://int-heuristweb-prod.intersect.org.au/heurist/?db=Brantford_Immigration&website&id=1116

The Armenian, Italian, and Chinese Communities in Brantford

By the end of the First World War, Brantford had become home to over 3,000 immigrants from 34 different countries. There were approximately 500 Armenians, 160 Italians, and 110 Chinese among them.[3] These three immigrant communities with different immigration trajectories were chosen to reveal the intricate tapestry of immigrant experiences within the city.

Armenians, drawn by the promise of jobs, soon became the city’s largest immigrant community. They initially saw themselves as temporary sojourners but, with the outbreak of World War I and the Armenian Genocide, they chose to settle permanently. Italian immigrants were instrumental in construction and foundry work, with the community rapidly expanding. Meanwhile, the Chinese community in Brantford, largely consisted of manual laborers and entrepreneurs, many of whom had worked on railway construction and mining projects in other areas.

Brantfordians displayed significant concern and support for Armenians during the Armenian Massacre in Turkey. Fundraising efforts were initiated, and churches contributed to aid Armenian Christians.[4] Various events and lectures were organized, with some Armenian students and clergy coming to Brantford to raise awareness about the massacres.[5] Armenian immigrants in Brantford had access to education, supported by the City’s major employers like the Cockshutt Plow Company.[6] However, they also faced accidents and injuries while working in local factories.[7] Over time, the Armenian community in Brantford made efforts to assimilate into the local culture and improve their English language skills, but this did not completely eliminate conflicts. In 1906, a strike involving 100 Armenian workers at the Malleable Iron Works occurred, demanding higher pay.[8] Racism was encountered by early Armenian workers, as they faced opposition from local workers in the same departments.[9]

 

[3] https://www.doingourbit.ca/pre-war-snapshot
[4] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Dec. 21, 1895, p. 1.; Jan. 27, 1896, p. 3.
[5] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Feb. 1, 1898, p. 4; Aug. 1, 1903, p. 1.
[6] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Dec. 6, 1902, p. 1.
[7] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Nov. 7, p. 1; Mar. 28, 1906, p. 4.
[8] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Jun. 19, 1906, p. 5.
[9] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Sept. 22, 1903, p. 2.

The Brantford Daily Expositor, Nov. 7, 1904, p. 1.

The first recorded Italian immigrant in Brantford, Canada, was Filippo Tommaso in 1891, although there were earlier undocumented Italian residents.[10] Canadian immigration policies at the time favored British, White American, and northwestern European immigrants. However, some Italians entered Canada either through the United States or with permits for railway and construction work. Early Italian immigrants in Brantford were often poor but were willing to take on undesirable jobs.

The Brantford Daily Expositor documented several work-related accidents involving Italian workers during this time. For instance, on July 22, 1903, Barnado Ross, an Italian labourer employed on the Grand Trunk Railway, suffered a severe injury when he slipped and was trapped under a moving railway car, which ultimately led to the amputation of his limb.[11] Tragically, many of these accidents resulted in fatalities, highlighting the perilous working conditions faced by Italian labourers in that era.[12]

In addition to workplace accidents, illnesses also affected Italian immigrants in Brantford. The Expositor reported on January 29, 1914, that Tony Dinello, an Italian labourer who fell ill from contracting tuberculosis and was unable to work, was facing deportation due to his illness. Mr. Stander, a missionary working with the city’s foreign population, took him to Montreal for treatment, but he was eventually sent back to Brantford. Unfortunately, Tony fell ill again, and it was expected that he would be deported shortly due to his ongoing health issues.[13]

The earliest documented reference to a Chinese in Brantford comes from July 8, 1885. His name was Lee Lett, and he came from Hamilton to set up a laundry. Unfortunately, after experiencing abuse and vandalism, Lee left the city in two weeks.[14] The first successful Chinese laundry in Brantford was owned by Lee Chong, and he boldly named it “The Chinese Laundry.” Despite facing prejudice, on February 4, 1897, Lee Chong published a notice to the public, urging them to set aside their biases and give “The Chinese Laundry” a try for the best laundry services in the city.[15] The laundry was situated at 153 Dalhousie St., which presently is the docking area of Laurier Brantford’s One Market, across the street from the Research and Academic Centre. This establishment marked the beginnings of Chinese businesses in Brantford. By 1920, there were 12 Chinese laundries in Brantford.[16]

 

[10] https://memoriesofbrantford.ca/communities/italian
[11] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Jul. 22, 1903, p. 7.
[12] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Feb. 1, 1907, p. 1; Mar. 28, 1907, p. 7.
[13] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Jan. 29, 1914, p. 6.
[14] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Jul. 8, 1885, p 1, Jul. 17, 1885, p. 8.
[15] The Expositor, Feb. 4, 1897, p. 8.
[16] The Expositor, Feb. 20, 1920, p.17.

The Brantford Daily Expositor, June 8, 1907, p. 9.

Many Chinese entrepreneurs also ventured into the restaurant business in Brantford. One of the earliest establishments was the Boston Chinese Cafe at 47 Colborne Street, established in 1906. Despite its name, the Bostone Chinese Cafe did not serve Chinese cuisine, as early Chinese-operated cafes primarily offered Western food.[17] Their success led to the opening of a second location at 113 Colborne St., which was situated near the present-day Laurier Brantford YMCA. The Chinese community in Brantford were very active. On May 31, 1920, the Brantford branch of the Chinese Nationalist League was formally inaugurated, marking an important moment in the Chinese community’s development in the city.[18]

[17] The Brantford Daily Expositor, Oct. 17, 1906, p. 2.
[18] The Expositor, May 31, 1920, p. 5.

Flashback Downtown Brantford

 In Winter 2023, as a class project for HI240: The Active Historian, students and I organized a public history event entitled “Flashback Downtown Brantford.” A dedicated group of 30 students put in a tremendous amount of effort and hard work to bring this event to life. This week-long celebration aimed to take participants on an unforgettable journey into Brantford’s past. The event featured a wide array of activities, including exhibitions, games, and engaging presentations. To kick off the festivities, we hosted two opening day events that drew a total of 120 attendees. It was an amazing experience for both the students involved and the participants, as we delved into the rich history of downtown Brantford, offering a unique opportunity to learn, have fun, and celebrate the city’s multicultural history.

The stories of these immigrant communities are not only significant in themselves but also a reflection of Brantford’s history as a whole. It is my hope that these narratives will continue to be explored, shared, and preserved for future generations to appreciate and learn from.

Christina Han is an Associate Professor in History at Wilfrid Laurier University teaching on the Brantford Campus. She is the Curator of East Asia at Laurier Brantford, having served as a Curatorial Consultant and Research Associate at the Royal Ontario Museum for over fifteen years. Han is also a digital humanist and have been involved in Deep Mapping projects on Brantford’s immigration history