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Joseph D. Carrier Biography

Some people command attention the minute they walk into a room: Conversation drops, heads swivel, waiters swarm. It’s that way with Joe Carrier. At Boccaccio Ristorante located at Columbus Centre, a cultural, recreational and social hangout for Italo-Canadians where he frequently lunches, everyone knows him.

It’s 30 degrees outside, but Carrier, head of Carrier Development Corporation, looks as though he’s just stepped out of a bandbox. A well-cut, three piece navy gabardine suit, his Panama hat in hand and shirt front gleaming white, gives him an air of distinction. Plus tanned features and a mane of white, wavy hair.

He’d be a casting director’s dream for the role of an elder statesman or senior diplomat from a Latin country. And the “diplomat” connection would extend to his personal life, too, for Joe Carrier has helped thousands of affluent Italo-Canadians (and others, too) from their money in aid of worthwhile community causes. And they’ve smiled as they paid up since they know Carrier himself has always been the first to give.

His manner is gracious but not condescending as he orders a martini “very, very dry” for lunch, sole preceded by soup. Then “no” he says, “on second thought, instead of soup bring me a bowl of steamed mussels.” Carrier’s hearty appetite is matched by a zest for living that has sustained him through 77 years as: Immigrant child, shoeshine boy, newspaper vendor, shoemaker, union leader, footwear tycoon, real estate developer, fundraiser and philanthropist.

At Boccaccio friends walk over to shake his hand then return to their tables to remark to their guests: “That’s Joe Carrier. He just gave a million dollars to this place.”

They’re referring to the fact that last May, the mini-gallery that Columbus Centre used for small art shows had, through his generosity, become the Joseph D. Carrier Art Gallery. Most of the million dollars will go toward necessary enlargement, environmental and security alterations to make the installation eligible for classification as a public gallery by the Ontario Association of Art Galleries.

The gallery opened with reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci’s art and manuscripts that are considered rarities in themselves. A critic compared the show favorably with the blockbuster Leonardo exhibit in Montreal saying: “What is intriguing about the Carrier show is its ability to tackle the overwhelming theme of art, science and Utopia and wrestle it to the ground.”

Carrier, himself an art collector, is proud of the gallery but he says, “what pleases me as much is the fact that three other members of the community have now pledged large sums to add a chronic care centre to our home for the aged, Villa Colombo, just behind this building.” Columbus Centre and its present neighbors, the elderly people’s home and a senior citizens’ apartment building, all had their beginnings traceable to Carrier, whose long history began as a struggle for survival.

Born Giuseppe Domenic Carriero in 1910, Joe Carrier came to Toronto with his immigrant parents, Antonio and Cristalla, when he was a child of two. His lifelong friend, ethnic broadcasting pioneer Johnny Lombardi, says of Carrier: “His parents came over on the same ship as mine in 1912. It was a 35-day trip in steerage. Joseph was born in  Pisticci in the region of Basilicata, from the south of Italy.

My mother told me that, before I was born five years later, she hoped I’d look like little Joe with whom she’d fallen in love. Of the nine children Cristalla had, seven died in Italy. Only Joe and his sister Angelina lived. You know, 1912 was the year of the Titanic disaster, but I think even if they’d come over on that boat Joe would have survived.

The Carriers settled in an area known as the ward, where Jews, Italians, Slavs and Chinese lived in large numbers. It is a part of Toronto that was largely demolished to make way for Nathan Phillips Square and the new City Hall.

Even in Toronto the Carrieros were dirt poor. Antonio had been a cooper, a maker of wine barrels in his native Pisticci, but there was little work in that craft in Toronto and the struggle for survival continued.

In spite of their poverty and the fact that they spoke in a peasant dialect, the Carrieros retained a sense of their native culture. “Dad was a lover of art,” says Carrier. “I remember that while I was schooled in English, he insisted we always spoke Italian at home and he used to show me pictures torn from papers and magazines of the work of the great masters and painstakingly he would explain to me that there was so much love and worship that went into making those old paintings.”

At the same time he was shining shoes and selling papers to help out the family. With his studies and service as an altar boy, there wasn’t much time for play.

“I delivered the Globe in the morning before school to the wealthy homes and then in the late afternoon sold The Star on the street,” he says. “I remember The Star printing building was located on Louisa St. by the old Opera House. I used to buy 12 papers for 8 cents and sell them at the regular price of a cent each. A profit of 50 per cent isn’t bad at any time of your life.”

Leaving elementary school at 14, Carrier found work in a cobbler’s shop, but became deft at making shoes and was soon employed in a shoe factory where he became a master craftsman. It was then that the profit motive soured on him, at least for a while. Religious parents and church training had impressed Carrier with the belief that he was “his brother’s keeper.” Although his talent as a shoemaker paid him reasonably good wages, he began to deplore the conditions most of the workers had to endure and before reaching his 20s had become a union organizer and in a short while, president of a local with 4,000 members.

“I was pretty much of a leftist in those days and during the Depression was quite an activist,” he recalls. “I remember a few scuffles with the police during demonstrations.

“I was determined that if I ever became a proprietor I’d treat my employees with the same respect I demanded and never got for them from others. I didn’t have much time for the church in those days, but somehow I just couldn’t get the old adage about being your brother’s keeper out of my mind.”

In 1937, Carrier’s life took two dramatic turns. He married Josephine Mastrangelo and on an investment of $92 opened his own business. Celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary this year, Carrier looks back on it as a supportive union during which they had two sons and two daughters. They have nine grandchildren and a great-grandchild. Josephine has assisted him in his business and voluntary activities.

The shoe business, J.D. Carrier Shoe Company, grew in to a manufacturing empire which at its peak included factories in Toronto, Brampton, Midland, Montreal, Buffalo and Florence, Italy, employing over 2,000.

Toni Fiore who has been his secretary for the past 29 years calls him a “compassionate and wonderful employer. He was something special to his employees. They all loved him. His heart and pocketbook have always been ready,” Fiore adds. “I’m quite a few years younger and I can’t keep up to him, I have to run,” she laughs.

With an expanding business running along the humanitarian lines he’s always advocated, Carrier began his involvement with community projects starting as a member of the Knights of Columbus. He became active in the Columbus Boys Club on Toronto’s Bellwoods Ave. among whose projects was a camp for underprivileged children

“I remember how pleased I was as a kid when The Star Fresh Air Fund sent me to camp,” says Carrier, “and it gave me real joy to be able to help do the same thing for another generation.”

Johnny Lombardi recalls those days, too. “Joe was always there when help was needed at the boys’ club,” he says. “Maybe the organ would need fixing or something else was needed. He never saw them go short of either assistance or money.”

Drawing on his experience as a successful union leader and a businessman, Carrier went on to take founding leadership in many other organizations. The postwar surge in immigration brought hundreds of thousands of Italians to Ontario and Carrier, with established members of the community organized the Italian Immigrant Aid Society. In order to give Italians a stronger voice in the Metro Toronto community, he got the Canadian-Italian Business and Professional Association started. Today it has 400 members.

His efforts were turned not only toward helping Italian newcomers. Dr. Paul Rekai who with his brother, the late Dr. John Rekai, founded Toronto’s Central Hospital – a pioneer in health care for immigrants – remembers how Carrier came to the aid of the fledgling hospital.

“We opened in 1957 with 35 beds,” says Rekai. Before long it became apparent we needed many more beds. Joe Carrier had a factory just around the corner and one day he walked in and asked if he could help us. We had decided to begin a fundraising campaign to make Central into a facility that would be eligible for classification as a public general hospital: Joe’s dedication and creativity helped carry us through the campaign and I’m proud to say that to this day he remains a life member on our board of directors.

“He personally gave $50,000. You know between staff and volunteers at Central we speak over 30 languages and can thus be a great help to newcomers and even old people who have never mastered English. It’s a far cry from the days when Joe first came to Toronto, but it’s been people like this remembering their roots, who have made this city a better place to live.”

The shoe business, J.D. Carrier Shoe Company, grew in to a manufacturing empire which at its peak included factories in Toronto, Brampton, Midland, Montreal, Buffalo and Florence, Italy, employing over 2,000.

Toni Fiore who has been his secretary for the past 29 years calls him a “compassionate and wonderful employer. He was something special to his employees. They all loved him. His heart and pocketbook have always been ready,” Fiore adds. “I’m quite a few years younger and I can’t keep up to him, I have to run,” she laughs.

With an expanding business running along the humanitarian lines he’s always advocated, Carrier began his involvement with community projects starting as a member of the Knights of Columbus. He became active in the Columbus Boys Club on Toronto’s Bellwoods Ave. among whose projects was a camp for underprivileged children

“I remember how pleased I was as a kid when The Star Fresh Air Fund sent me to camp,” says Carrier, “and it gave me real joy to be able to help do the same thing for another generation.”

Johnny Lombardi recalls those days, too. “Joe was always there when help was needed at the boys’ club,” he says. “Maybe the organ would need fixing or something else was needed. He never saw them go short of either assistance or money.”

Drawing on his experience as a successful union leader and a businessman, Carrier went on to take founding leadership in many other organizations. The postwar surge in immigration brought hundreds of thousands of Italians to Ontario and Carrier, with established members of the community organized the Italian Immigrant Aid Society. In order to give Italians a stronger voice in the Metro Toronto community, he got the Canadian-Italian Business and Professional Association started. Today it has 400 members.

His efforts were turned not only toward helping Italian newcomers. Dr. Paul Rekai who with his brother, the late Dr. John Rekai, founded Toronto’s Central Hospital – a pioneer in health care for immigrants – remembers how Carrier came to the aid of the fledgling hospital.

“We opened in 1957 with 35 beds,” says Rekai. Before long it became apparent we needed many more beds. Joe Carrier had a factory just around the corner and one day he walked in and asked if he could help us. We had decided to begin a fundraising campaign to make Central into a facility that would be eligible for classification as a public general hospital: Joe’s dedication and creativity helped carry us through the campaign and I’m proud to say that to this day he remains a life member on our board of directors.

“He personally gave $50,000. You know between staff and volunteers at Central we speak over 30 languages and can thus be a great help to newcomers and even old people who have never mastered English. It’s a far cry from the days when Joe first came to Toronto, but it’s been people like this remembering their roots, who have made this city a better place to live.”

Carrier has now turned the shoe business over to his son, Anthony, but remains as active as ever, having turned his hand to real estate development in Toronto and Montreal. With his customary energy he’s in Montreal for two days each week and in Toronto divides his time between business and volunteer activities.

He has begun renewed efforts for the huge project in which he first became involved nearly 20 years ago, the Italian-Canadian Benevolent Corporation which is the umbrella organization for Villa Colombo Home for the Aged, Columbus Centre, the senior citizen’s project and the proposed chronic care centre for the aged.

“It all began on the golf course,” says Carrier. “In the late ’60s we were a foursome, the late John De Toro, Vincent Paul, Remo Di Carli and myself. We began to discuss what Italo-Canadian businessmen could do for the community and hit on the idea for a home for the aged. But there were pros and cons. Italians are family-oriented and to the majority in those days, the thought of putting their parents in to a senior citizens’ home could be abhorrent. There was a lot more thinking to do.

“Eventually I decided to get things started. To have Ontario government assistance in such a project we needed some money up front. I invited nine other businessmen to a private dinner and after outlining the project put up $50,000. Each of the others did the same and there we had half a million to begin with.”

The Italian-Canadian Benevolent Corporation was founded and a site chosen for Villa Colombo at Playfair Ave. in North York at the corner of Lawrence and Dufferin. Carrier initiated many other fundraising projects including a black tie dinner with guest speaker comedian Jerry Lewis who extracted over $2½ million in pledges from the guests and even gave $100,000 himself.

Villa Colombo was opened in 1976 and hailed by politicians, social service professionals and the community in general as a model home for senior citizens who in their declining years could converse in their mother tongue, eat Italian food, consult with their own padre and enjoy Italian-style entertainment.

Carrier says Villa Colombo owes a debt of gratitude to the board and staff at Baycrest, the Jewish seniors’ home located not far away. “They gave us every bit of help the could. Theirs had been a similar problem to ours. We can never repay them for that.”

As usual at her husband’s side, Josephine Carrier organized a ladies’ auxiliary for the home and by the time it opened, 40 women in pink smocks were there to make the flood of newcomers welcome. By skilful propaganda in the community, Villa Colombo had been projected as the kind of place in which seniors would feel comfortable and in which their children would feel no shame in having them residing.

Columbus Centre with gymnasia, a swimming pool, tennis courts and space for cultural activities was not long in following and the senior citizens’ apartment building came after it. Although many others are now deeply involved in the work of the Italian-Canadian Benevolent Corporation they’re still glad to have Carrier around, with projects like the chronic care centre in the wind.

Anthony Fusco, president of Eurofoods and longtime friend says:

Joe Carrier, I could go on for days about him. Certainly he was the father of our project. He’s a great, great man and I’m proud I got involved in community work if only for the honor of knowing him. He’s still our elder statesman, but perhaps ‘elder’ isn’t the right word.