Toronto’s invisible cities and political participation
It is often said that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own socioeconomic characteristics, ethnic communities, life cycles and histories. While that may be true, Toronto is also a cluster of “invisible cities”, to use the words of Italo Calvino. Their diverse citizens have developed their own mental maps of the city, which are often juxtaposed yet distant from each other or unable to communicate. In these alternative geographies, Toronto is not just the largest city in Canada, or simply the capital of Ontario, but also a transnational ‘suburb’ of the places where its vast immigrant population comes from. The late Robert Harney, a pioneer social historian of migration and ethnicity with the University of Toronto and founder of the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, made this point eloquently. He argued that: “the city encountered at any given moment by immigrants is not the city encountered by intellectual observers long in the land, that the insertion of most alien newcomers into urban economies has more to do with the gutters and manhole covers than with fountains and flapping curtains… For what each reader brings to his reading of the city comes from the other texts which inform him or her, and at no time in the city’s history were the texts of a single discourse shared by all the populace.”
When invisible politics block traffic: the “Bay St. Riot” of 1961
There have been various moments in Toronto’s history where the politics of these ‘invisible cities’ became ‘visible’ to the mainstream in dramatic fashion. Such occasions are usually followed by condemnation from other Torontonians, especially Anglo-Canadians, who generally find the ‘foreign’ politics of their ethnic neighbours to be misplaced and inconvenient. One of the most significant episodes of civil disobedience motivated by homeland politics in the city’s recent history were the large protests of Toronto’s Tamil community during Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009, which led to the unauthorized blockade of the Gardiner Expressway. Those who criticized Tamil rallies in Canada were shored by the dominant ‘war on terror’ narrative, in which the federal government identified the Tamil Tigers as one of the enemies.
There have also been cases where the homeland politics of ‘invisible’ communities spilled onto Toronto’s streets without provoking much condemnation from other city residents. One such occasion happened on January 29, 1961, when hundreds of Portuguese immigrants from opposing political factions clashed outside the Portuguese consulate on Bay St., escalating into an episode of “mob” violence that lasted about ten minutes until the police intervened. The “Bay St. Riot”, as the press called it, took place at the height of the hijacking of the cruise ship Santa Maria off the coast of Curacao by Captain Henrique Galvão and his Iberian ‘anti-fascists’. This drama at high seas attracted a tremendous amount of attention from the international media, lifting what the democratic opposition called the “curtain of silence” screening António Salazar’s right-wing dictatorship and colonial regime known as the Estado Novo (New State), which ruled over Portugal from 1926 to 1974. The detailed coverage of the Santa Maria saga fascinated Canadians, who were able to read about “freedom fighting pirates” eluding American, British, and Portuguese warships, planes, and submarines; as a reporter called it: a “real-life Errol Flynn drama.” The Toronto Daily Star, Globe & Mail, and Toronto Telegram ran the story for sixteen days, dedicating to it many front pages, editorials, and illustrations. At one point, the Star had seven reporters stationed in Portugal, Brazil, Angola, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Puerto Rico, covering what one of the journalists described was “one of the biggest [stories] of the decade.” Another reporter from the conservative Telegram who had been recently arrested in Lisbon for taking pictures of Portugal’s crumbling Air Force equipment, wished “good luck to the pirates.” Canadians were drawn by such emphatic headlines as: “Pirates Capture Liner;” “Atom Sub in Chase. Still Won’t Surrender;” “The Pirate Captain Says: ‘Salazar’s a Portuguese Hitler’;” and oddities like “8-Year-Old Has Plan for Capture;” or “Newsmen ‘Chute to Ship, Land in Ocean.” Torontonians were reeled further into this drama when reading: “Toronto Man’s Brother in Crew of Santa Maria;” “Pirate Chief has Friends in Toronto;” or “Pirate War Reaches Our Bay St.”
On the side of Galvão and his ‘anti-fascists’ was the Portuguese Canadian Democratic Association (PCDA). Created in 1959 by a group of political exiles, most of them urban workers from the mainland of Portugal, the PCDA was the second Portuguese organization to be founded in Toronto, and one of the first in Canada – Portuguese mass migration to Canada had only began in 1953 and consisted largely of rural workers and fishermen from the Azorean islands and the northern mainland. Some of the PCDA members had experience in labour politics and grassroots activism before migrating, including with the clandestine Portuguese Communist Party. Despite their limited formal education and financial resources, these pro-democrats were able to capture the attention of mainstream media numerous times, draw support from high-profile Canadians, and collaborate with influential Portuguese opposition leaders within a transnational coalition of anti-Salazar exiles around the world.
The PCDA organized various political actions in Toronto, including a drive-by protest in front of the Portuguese consulate during the Santa Maria episode. Its motorcade was made up of seventeen cars draped in anti-Salazar signs and flags, honking their horns as they drove past the consulate. This was scheduled to coincide with the arrival of a pro-Salazar delegation composed of immigrants from cities across Ontario, who travelled to Toronto to deliver a petition to the Portuguese consul signed by more than 700 people pledging their support for their homeland government. According to one of the organizers, the petition had been motivated by what he perceived was the slanted media coverage of the Santa Maria crisis, which gave too much expression to Salazar’s enemies, making it seem as if the majority of Portuguese people opposed him. This show of patriotic loyalty climaxed when the consul descended to the lobby, stood up on a chair, and waved to his countrymen, who responded with loud cheers. But contrary to the organizers’ intentions, the main story in the newspapers the next day were not the arguments of the pro-Salazar supporters but their violent reaction to their pro-democratic fellow immigrants.
When the PCDA’s motorcade came around the block a second time, a large number of Salazar supporters exited to the street and engulfed the cars, blocking their passage – as in the Tamil protest of 2009, the press highlighted the fact that some protesters brought their children along. They began kicking, scraping, rattling, and eventually flipping over one of the vehicles. One of the democrats was punched through his car window, some were assaulted with their own flagpoles, and others exited their vehicles and got into fistfights. Meanwhile, as a Star reporter noted: “100 feet away, in an elegant restaurant, diners quietly continued eating as the battle raged outside.” Ten minutes later, the Toronto police arrived and dispersed the crowd, arresting two pro-Salazar supporters – the Portuguese government would later pay for their court expenses.
The only negative reaction in the press to this violent incident and its foreignness was a small piece in the Star section called “The Newcomers”, in which reporter Ron Lowman asked: “Why a riot over Portuguese politics on lower Bay St.? …Why don’t they get this excited over Diefenbaker versus Pearson?” Lowman quoted a federal citizenship officer who remarked: “They chose this country. They came here, but they refuse to look upon it as a home.” The reporter then interviewed two of the immigrants in the PCDA’s motorcade and asked them to explain what had been the point of protesting Portuguese politics in Toronto, and what they had meant by “our country”. Both men argued their commitment to democracy was borderless and rejected the implication that a concern for homeland politics precluded a sense of belonging to Canada. Instead, they argued their fight against Salazar’s dictatorship was a tribute to Canada’s fundamental values, which allowed them the freedom to protest; something they did not have in Portugal. The civic careers of both individuals attested to their dedication to active citizenship and democracy in Canada. One of them, António Vaz, for example, would later be involved in various advocacy organizations, including the Kensington Area Residents’ Association; joining the boards of prominent institutions, like the Toronto Doctor’s Hospital or the Harbourfront Centre; and working as a grassroots organizer for the Progressive Conservative Party riding association of Spadina.
The Bay St. Riot gave Torontonians a clear example of how foreign politics of apparent no direct concern to them could have an emphatic impact on their city through its immigrant communities. But judging from the absence of letters to the editor or opinion columns dealing with this incident, Torontonians – much like the undisturbed diners that night – did not seem greatly upset about this transplantation of foreign political conflicts onto their streets. Perhaps the reason for this was the fact that Torontonians had a chance to learn about Portuguese politics and the ‘anti-fascists’ struggle for democracy through the Santa Maria coverage. Because they could identify the camps and comprehend the issues in a familiar ‘democracy versus fascism’ narrative, they were invited into what would otherwise be an entirely alien conflict. Moreover, for those enthralled in the modern buccaneer saga, the riot may have simply spiced up a story that kept rewarding those who followed it.
Not a homogenous bunch: internal struggles for power (and patronage)
The few sociological studies written on the Portuguese in Canada in the 1970s and ’80s ignored their transnational experiences and swiftly dismissed their ‘political participation’ as something these working class immigrants were largely indifferent to. Despite lacking historical analysis or substantive evidence, these blanket statements based on statistical snapshots, echoed and legitimized popular perceptions of Portuguese immigrants as docile and insular. One of the many factors mentioned by these social scientists when explaining this supposed political apathy was the ethnic group’s ‘lack of unity’ as a political constituency. This was also a common complaint voiced by the small group of self-appointed middle-class leaders who dominated the community’s organizations in the ’60s and ’70s, and who considered this ‘disunity’ to be a major deterrent to mobilizing their group’s electoral strength, and elevating their own status as ethnic representatives. Portuguese immigrants did display a strong sense of regional and national solidarity from time to time, especially during community celebrations, or in fundraising campaigns for various civic and humanitarian causes in Portugal. But as with any immigrant group, the Portuguese were not a homogenous bunch. Sharp divisions existed along regional, class, religious, generational, and political lines, which occasionally intersected.
When it came to homeland politics, the majority of Portuguese immigrants and their so-called leaders either actively endorsed the homeland government and its colonial empire, or were largely uncritical towards it. Together with a sense of patriotism, there was also a degree of self-interest in these leaders’ promotion of the Estado Novo. In short, Portugal’s international profile reflected on the way their ethnic group was perceived in Canada. Hence, it was in these representatives’ best interest that Portugal not be seen as a poor, backward country, with a violent oppressive colonial empire, dominated by an antiquated dictatorship, as most Canadians perceived it. There were also direct material interests at play. Many of these self-appointed leaders were clients of the Salazar’s diplomats, who managed to exert great influence over the formation of Portuguese communities in North America through their patronage and propaganda. Portuguese ambassadors and consuls helped shape the political views of their expatriate citizens and articulate a quaint version of Portuguese ethnic identity that reflected Salazar’s conservative, traditionalist, rural ethos, in a proto-multiculturalist Canada that increasingly rewarded displays of folksy ethnicity.
Efforts to create Portuguese national churches in Canada were also highly political and involved considerable backroom dealings between Portuguese officials and the Catholic episcopate in Canada and the Vatican. Some of the first Portuguese Catholic priests in Canada were subsidized by the Estado Novo and were seen as crucial agents in advancing its colonialist agenda from within their NATO allies’ national societies. Moreover, most of these early clergymen were incredibly covetous of money and power, which they extracted from their flocks, whose parishioners they tried to steal from each other’s congregations. In fairness, some of the programs and institutions launched by these community priests and ethnic entrepreneurs, with financial and logistic support from the Portuguese government, had real intrinsic value and were meaningful to the many immigrants that used them, including social service agencies, language schools, and media outlets.
This Bay St. Riot was the first time the two political camps in Toronto’s budding Portuguese community confronted each other. However, they would continue to battle in the boardrooms of community clubs and associations, in the organization of cultural events, and in the Portuguese-language press. The ’60s and early ’70s was a period of fierce competition in intra-community politics, when Portuguese diplomats, Catholic priests, business and professional elites, and political exiles fought for control of its organizations. At this point, Estado Novo officials had recognized the need to empower and unite community leaders under a single Portuguese-Canadian federation in order to better control them and increase their political leverage in Canada. However, despite having common interests, the ideological differences and personal rivalries between Portuguese civic leaders were too intense for such a coalition to overcome and sustain itself beyond short-term goals.
“Leave those differences behind you”: dealing with Canadian officials
The history of the Portuguese Canadian Congress is a good example of the community’s quarrelsome dynamics. The suspicious death of the 20-year old immigrant Angelo Nóbrega at the hands of a Toronto police officer caused a commotion among the city’s Portuguese. On May 17, 1969, about 750 community members marched on Nathan Phillips Square to protest the ill treatment of immigrants by Toronto’s police. After a controversial inquiry on Nóbrega’s death, the officer was released with impunity, which further upset the community. At this point, civic leaders from different sides of the political spectrum, led by the leftist PCDA, came together and agreed there was a need for an umbrella organization that could represent their community’s interests when dealing with Canadian officials. Founded in September 1969, the Portuguese Canadian Congress was intended to be this spokesperson. However, soon after its creation, those right-wing organizations associated with the Portuguese consul and the powerful director of St. Mary’s Catholic parish, pastor Alberto Cunha, left the Congress and formed a dissident federation with similar objectives. Their first action was to alert Canadian authorities to the strong ‘communist’ contingent in the Congress’ executive, starting with its founding president, Domingos Costa Gomes, who was a member of the PCDA and the Portuguese Communist Party. Not all of the Congress’ executives were on the left. For instance, Fernando Costa, who became president in 1970, was an organizer for the Progressive Conservative party in Toronto. Canadian government officials, who were initially pleased with the creation of the Congress, since it fit their multiculturalist model of homogenous ethnic representation, were frustrated with these internal divisions.
The Congress eventually self-destructed in March 1971 (technically it lasted until 1974) after disagreements between its PCDA-dominated general assembly and their conservative president. Prompting this internal collapse was an invitation by Toronto Mayor William Dennison asking the Congress to organize the city’s annual Portuguese Week celebrations in June. After learning that pastor Cunha and his group intended to carry their own separate festivities, Costa decided to invite the Portuguese consul to do the ceremonial flag raising at City Hall and reserved a spot on the Congress’ program for the Catholic parishes to conduct their religious ceremonies. Costa realized the PCDA would object to this decision, so he called a meeting with a select group of members that he knew would pass his resolution. Unfortunately for Costa, the other Congress members found out about this circumspect meeting and censored the president’s undemocratic ways, leading to his resignation. The PCDA members then refused to recognize the Portuguese consul and his dictatorial government as legitimate representatives of the people of Portugal and rejected sponsoring religious activities, arguing it contravened the Congress’ secular nature.
As the Congress crashed and burned, the pro-Salazar and ultra-nationalist pastor Cunha carried his Portugal Day program as he had done since he arrived in Toronto in 1966. But the PCDA was not ready to see yet another official endorsement to the Estado Novo go unchallenged, so they held a public rally during the flag raising event at City Hall on June 10, Portugal’s national holiday. About sixty democrats chanted anti-fascist and anti-colonial slogans as the consul performed his ceremonial duties. During this debacle, Mayor Dennison tried to appease the crowd of proud Portuguese patriots with a typical assimilationist mantra: “Leave those differences behind you… and [s]tart out afresh to do something for Canada and by so doing you will be doing something for yourselves.” This was a message that political exiles heard more frequently from government officials as Pierre Trudeau’s liberal multiculturalist discourse began taking hold of Canadian society in the ’70s, with its emphasis on seemingly innocuous and apolitical expressions of ethnicity over other identities, like class, gender, or any other ‘radical’ solidarities.
Dennison’s paternalism upset the PCDA, which released this response: “We strongly protest against this biased attitude of Mayor Dennison. We want to make quite clear that we are not only concerned with the problems of our mother country….Is it not sufficient proof [of] our participation in the life of this hospitable country that received us… the fact that we use the democratic laws we now enjoy to express our contempt for the [Estado Novo]? A regime that has time and again been condemned by most United Nations members, Canada included, for not heeding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? …Our Portuguese democratic members do not intend to be only recognized as hard working, honest and law-abiding people. We intend to participate in a world where all are able to live freely and democratically.” Ironically, the PCDA had invited the New Democrat William Dennison to carry out the official launch of a high-profile conference on the plight of political prisoners in Portugal that they had organized in Toronto in 1966, when Dennison was just starting his mayoral campaign. In fact, various PCDA members were involved with the NDP as campaign organizers and volunteers, further corroborating their assertion that a concern for transnational politics did not preclude a commitment to Canadian citizenship.
The April 25th revolution and the growing political consciousness of Portuguese-Canadians
The Carnation Revolution of April 25th, 1974, which toppled the Estado Novo, ended Portugal’s centuries-old empire and colonial wars and led to the introduction of a democratic government, greatly affected the lives of Portuguese emigrants around the world. The new political order now saw the diaspora as a fundamental part of Portugal’s post-imperial nation, whose fate the emigrants were now asked to contribute to, not only through their remittances and cultural brokerage, but also with their vote as expatriate citizens with their own emigration districts, members of parliament, and diasporic councils. The revolution opened a new chapter in the local yet transnational politics of Toronto’s Portuguese community. At the same time, in the ’70s, its ethnic leaders and immigrant activists started focusing more on the political debates and everyday realities of their local contexts. The old factions now straddled Portuguese and Canadian polities and continued to battle each other, although now rallying behind the Liberal, Conservative, and New Democratic parties.
Besides opening new diasporic avenues in the Portuguese map of Toronto, the 1974 revolution also introduced new political references in the minds of these ethnic Canadians, which were occasionally invoked to muster political will. The pervasive socialist ideals and rhetoric of Portugal’s revolutionary leaders; the liberal-conservatism of Azorean separatists and right-wing activists in parts of the mainland; the slogans, songs, and symbols of emancipated men and women, all permeated the consciousness of Portuguese people around the world in a way that reshaped their political attitudes and self-understanding. Gradually, the number of Portuguese-Canadian political candidates, labour leaders, unionized workers, and social activists in Toronto increased as the decade progressed, many of them citing the revolution as a defining moment in their political maturation.
Another event raising the political consciousness of Portuguese immigrants was the infamous rape and murder of 12-year-old Azorean Emanuel Jaques, in the summer of 1977, when two of Toronto’s ‘invisible cities’ collided. The gruesome crime that shocked Torontonians was a catalyst for the revamping of Yonge Street’s ‘sin strip’. About 15,000 people, a large portion of them Portuguese, once again took their anger to Nathan Phillips Square, this time demanding the city clean its ‘devious’ quarters. This episode has recently reemerged in Toronto’s public memory through the work of Portuguese-Canadian author Anthony de Sa in his 2013 novel Kicking the Sky.
This display of numerical strength spiked the interest of Canadian politicians, who recognized the electoral potential of the Portuguese and began attending their events more avidly. The ‘shoeshine boy’ rally, as it became known, also stirred those few immigrants with political ambitions into thinking they could win an election with their co-ethnic vote. The following year, five Portuguese-Canadians ran for city council, all in Ward 4 (Trinity-Bellwoods and Little Italy); before that there had only been two candidates running for school board trustee. However, the political momentum generated by the rally did not carry over to the ballot box, since none of these candidates came close to challenging the incumbents. After 1978, the average of Portuguese-Canadian candidates fell to about one per election. It would take another ten years before a Portuguese immigrant was finally elected for public office in Canada; this being Martin Silva, who became a Toronto city councilor in 1988.
Political participation: ‘top-down’ electoral politics or ‘bottom-up’ grassroots activism?
Social scientists who attribute the low rates of ‘political participation’ of some communities to their socioeconomic characteristics, believe that those who are marginalized by the dominant political and economic structures, and who have the most to gain from changing them, are the least likely to vote. According to these scholars, this is because the practical benefits of participating in a largely symbolic political action are smaller than those efforts made by an individual in the economic arena. Under this interpretation, those who retain strong ties to a marginalized ethnic community are less likely to participate in electoral politics than those who have abandoned such ties.
Indeed, the socioeconomic, linguistic, and educational profile of Portuguese immigrants account for much of their low electoral turnout during their first decades in Canada. However, it bears stressing that those Portuguese-Canadians who are most active in electoral politics and grassroots advocacy today are the children of construction workers, cleaning ladies, worm-pickers, fishermen, and other labourers, who developed their political consciousness upon observing the social injustices and harsh living conditions of their own marginalized working-class families and immigrant peers. Furthermore, part of their political instruction and motivations were drawn from political developments in Portugal.
Recognizing this reality, some social scientists have looked instead at the context of ‘socialization in these communities and drew different conclusions as to what constitutes ‘political participation’. For these researchers, instead of constraining the individual, the ethnic community itself can provide the basis and the leverage for immigrants to engage in politics. Despite their greater involvement in the ’70s and ’80s, Canadian political parties were still removed from the internal structures of Toronto’s Portuguese community. In their absence, ethnic associations, social service agencies, and increasingly unions, became the most effective ways for Portuguese immigrants to improve their working and living conditions, and address those social and cultural problems affecting their lives. While not without its shortcomings, particularly in how it rewarded seemingly apolitical displays of ‘ethnic’ culture, multiculturalism policies have injected new life in the civic infrastructures of these communities. Even those immigrant activists who were not interested in ‘food and dance’ type of cultural pursuits were able to channel multicultural grants towards advocacy and community empowerment programs with some creativity.
Still, both interpretations resonate with the Portuguese-Canadian case, suggesting they are not mutually exclusive. This apparent contradiction simply derives from differences in the scale of our analysis. If we look at the voting turnout of Portuguese-Canadians – a ‘top down’ perspective – their ‘participation’ has certainly been low. But if we look at the trajectories of civic and political leaders at the grassroots level – a ‘bottom up’ perspective – the argument that ethnic ties can be conducive to a political career also holds true. When measuring the ‘political participation’ of a particular constituency it is essential that we question what their members are supposed to participate in. It is also important that we distinguish collective mobilization from individual activism. The common deduction is that a community is as strong as its leaders and vice versa. This is because liberal-democratic systems are biased towards electoral representation and indirect political engagement. But immigrant voters tend to be most active around specific causes, dealing with concrete issues that yield tangible and immediate benefits. These are often articulated through direct forms of political action, as in the various occasions when Toronto’s Portuguese have come together in large numbers to protest perceived injustices to one of their own. Still, effective political intervention in a liberal democracy requires some degree of concerted representation, which ethnic leaders have been quick to assume, even though they often lack a mandate from those they claim to speak for. While it may be that the bulk of Portuguese immigrants in Toronto were not hopelessly fragmented, the divisions among its supposed leaders were strong enough to weaken their political profile. In other words, intense political competition at the micro-level reduced its expression at the macro-level, thus contributing to the ‘top-down’ perception that Portuguese were politically apathetic, even though politics played a very important role in the formation of their communities.
Toronto is host, and home, to a great many immigrant communities, whose family, cultural, economic, and political realities traverse local and global contexts. Toronto’s streets and squares merge with those of their home towns and cities – alternative geographies ‘invisible’ to those who ignore them. We all live in someone else’s land. To know the citizens of these juxtaposed cities and their transnational realities is to grow our common ground, which is where democracy ultimately happens and Toronto increasingly lives.
– Gilberto Fernandes
Gilberto Fernandes is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of History at York University. He is co-director of the Portuguese Canadian History Project | Projeto de História Luso-Canadiana.