When west-end contractor Mark Gillespie needed a few hammers for hire, he acted on a tip about Toronto’s hostels being packed with unemployed tradespeople and put up a “help wanted” ad at the Canadiana Backpackers Inn near Spadina and Queen.
“I got a dozen calls the first day,” Mr. Gillespie said. “I had to ask the last guy to take down the ad.”
All the respondents had two things in common: they were looking for work, and they had Irish accents.
“That hostel was the worst I’ve seen for Irish,” said Declan Power, with feigned deprecation. “Everyone you talked to was Irish.”
Mr. Power, a 25-year-old carpenter from Tipperary, got a job with Mr. Gillespie. As one of three Irishmen on the four-man crew, he’s part of a steady stream of Emerald Isle ex-pats arriving in Toronto looking for work and a temporary home.
The migration is so steady that the Irish government last week moved to set up an immigrant services centre at the Ireland Fund of Canada’s downtown offices. For the first time, Irish immigrants to Toronto will have a staffed centre for assistance with jobs, housing and visa issues.
Erika Gates-Gasse of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants explains that temporary workers don’t qualify for most of the federal settlement programs offered to permanent immigrants. So the centre will likely be a useful resource when it opens this winter – even if Toronto’s mosaic make-up means many of the newcomers continue to find support with the basics of life from helpful compatriots at one of the city’s increasingly authentic Irish pubs.
Most of the work being sought is in the trades. When the banks imploded in 2008 and the roof collapsed on Ireland’s housing-driven boom, the construction industry went from thriving to writhing. Unemployment climbed from five to 15 per cent in a country where one in five jobs was in construction. The first to lose jobs were the young men who wielded hammers and paintbrushes, but not much seniority.
“The arrivals come from all walks of life, but there’s a preponderance of construction workers,” says Eamonn O’Loghlin, the executive director of Toronto’s chapter of the Ireland-Canada Chamber of Commerce. He notes that Ottawa has more than doubled the number of International Experience visas it grants to Irish applicants since 2008, with close to 5,000 migrants expected this year.
Mr. O’Loghlin estimates that between 60 and 70 per cent of those are ending up in Toronto.
Anthony Arts owns the new Planet Traveler hostel on College near Spadina. He says since opening this winter, there have been between five and 10 Irish staying at his hostel every day.
“They stay from two to eight weeks,” Mr. Arts says. “And they all find work.”
It remains to be seen if economic anxiety sparked by the current stock-market turmoil will change overseas perceptions of Canada as a promised land, but Mr. O’Loghlin points out that the market ups and downs are, in part, a reflection of a continuing crisis in Ireland and its neighbours.
“A lot of what is happening is reflecting uncertainty about what is going on in Europe. It’s a sign of the times, but there is still a lot of opportunity here,” he says.
A less tangible draw to the city is the tradition of Irish immigration to Toronto that goes back 200 years and reached its peak in 1847 when Ireland’s Great Famine sent countless “coffin ships” across the Atlantic. Cabbagetown got its name from the crops that these famine-shocked immigrants grew in their front yards.
Mr. O’Loghlin points to a tradition of fraternity in which Irish assist other Irish. Toronto’s diaspora community is sufficiently large and close-knit to support 13 teams in a Gaelic football league (a sport quite distinct from soccer), which is a comfort for those in Ireland thinking about leaving.
“It’s all about Toronto back home,” Mr. Power said. “You don’t hear about the rest of the country. Everyone knows someone in Toronto.”
Mr. Power arrived this April and spent three months living in the Canadiana Backpackers Inn while he found affordable long-term housing. It didn’t take as long to find work. His first Friday night in town, he gambled a TTC fare on the sense of fraternity Mr. O’Loghlin mentions and took the streetcar out to McCarthy’s Irish Pub on Gerrard Street near Coxwell Avenue. He left his phone number with pub owner Maeve McCarthy – and was working his first job the next Monday.
“That happens a lot,” says Ms. McCarthy of the connection.
Ms. McCarthy came from Ireland 15 years ago. She says her pub is frequented by lots of Irish-Canadians, and lots of contractors. “There are work boots all around. The floor gets pretty dirty Fridays after work.”
About once a week, a contractor will ask her if she knows of any Irish tradespeople looking for work. She usually has a number to pass on. One of the contractors she has set up has 14 Irish working for him. She thinks her countrymen get a good reputation in the trades thanks to a good apprenticeship program back home.
She also says they are eager to work, something Michael Curley knows all about.
Mr. Curley is a 33-year-old painter from County Clare who had been out of work for two years when, depressed and hung over, he went to the grandparents who raised him and asked to borrow enough money to get to Canada. Two weeks after his arrival, he had a place to live with five other Irish guys and had found a job painting the interior of million-dollar houses through someone he met at a sports bar. He’s been here seven weeks and says he plans to start paying his grandparents back next month.
He says his experiences in Ireland are serving him well in Canada. “I know what it’s like not to have work. I’m grateful. My bosses can see that.”