Italian-Canadian internment

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Italian-Canadian internment began when Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King declared war on Benito Mussolini's fascist government on 10 June 1940.[1]

Days later, Minister of Justice, Ernest Lapointe, signed the order that resulted in labelling thousands of Italian-Canadians as "enemy aliens". Habeas corpus was suspended, and about 500 men (198 of them from Montreal) and four women were eventually interned as enemy aliens. In addition, 100 Italian seamen, who were in Canadian waters on 10 June 1940, were also subject to internment.

Enemy aliens[edit]

Newspaper accounts of the day, such as the Ottawa Citizen, tell that the status of "enemy alien" was immediately placed on non-resident Italians older than 16 years of age, and on Italian-Canadians who became British subjects after September 1929.[2] The category later expanded to include nationals of belligerent states naturalized after 1922. Those affected by the Emergencies Act were forced to register with the RCMP and report to them on a monthly basis.

Some of the Italian-Canadian men interned at Camp Petawawa had ties to Italian fascist organizations,and about 100 were listed as active party members, but many had no political affiliation and were probably interned as a result of mistaken identity or because of false accusations.

On 10 June 1940, all fascist organizations in Canada were deemed illegal. They included the Casa D'Italia consulate on Beverley Street, the fascist newspaper Il Bolletino and the Dopolavoro (after work) social club. Casa D'Italia was seized by the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property and sold to the RCMP, and consul staff was expelled from Canada.

Lists drawn up by police and the RCMP showed that at one time or another about 2,500 Italian-Canadians were members of Canadians fascist organizations.

The occupation and profession of 159 of the interned men: 36 labourers, 33 merchants, 30 professionals, 20 employees, 16 industrialists, 8 artisans, 5 clergymen, 4 journalists and 1 farmer. Among them was Canadian millionaire James Franceschini.

Alongside the interned fascists were men like Hamilton's notorious gangster Rocco Perri, and Carlo Roggiani, a railway worker from Saskatchewan.

There were also cases in which fathers, naturalized after 1922/29, were interned as enemy aliens while their Canadian-born sons headed overseas to fight with the Canadian army.

Punishment or precaution[edit]

Prior to June 10, 1940, the RCMP began systematic surveillance of Italian-Canadian fascists following Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935 and in 1938 published a 60-page report detailing fascist activity in Canada.

During these four years, Italian Consul Offices, fascist newspapers and the Catholic Church, primarily in Quebec and Ontario, heavily promoted fascist activity as did Italian-Canadian intellectual Frank Molinaro, Sudbury doctor Luigi Pancaro, and University of Toronto professor Emilio Goggio.

By 1940, many of the Italian-Canadian fraternal and social clubs across Canada were receiving direction, if not money and resources, from the Italian consul offices, which also offered recreation programs (through dopolavoro) and language classes (pro-fascist texts) to the Italian-Canadian community.

Toronto's Prince Umberto Fascist Club drew its membership mostly from the community's business elites and professionals.

In the same period, anti-fascist (not necessarily Communists) activity increased in urban centres and we often saw violent street battles in Toronto between Italian fascists and anti-fascists.

The black (following Ethiopia) and Jewish (following Mussolini's Anti-Semitic policy of 1938) communities in Toronto and Montreal also denounced Fascist Italy.

Toronto Star publisher Joseph E. Atkinson opposed fascism and the Ethiopia campaign, and the paper received a bottle of castor oil in response to an editorial titled, "A Gentlemen's Agreement", sent by a group of fascists.

Academic researchers[who?] tell us that most of the information gathered by police and the RCMP came from paid informers, so accuracy and veracity was a concern.

In one case, Montreal's Laura D'Anna cooperated with officials, and named names in exchange for her and her husband's freedom.

The authors of the book Enemies Within explain that government action against select members of the Italian-Canadian community was justified given the hysteria of the time.[citation needed] They concur that internment was not an act of punishment (not interned because of their ethnicity), but rather an act of precaution (because they were fascists or had ties to fascism).

There was also concern in Canada of a fifth column presence and police truly believed that 100 of the Italian internees were active fascists.

Official documents show that by the end of 1940, fifty-six of the interned men were released with another eighty released in 1941.

By October 5, 1943, seven or eight Italians remained interned (four of them hard-core fascists according to Enemies Within).

According to City without Women by the fascist author Mario Duliani, who wrote the book after being released, camp life was generally good—prisoners had three square meals a day, comfortable living quarters, doctors on site, and clean clothes and shoes. The only things missing were conjugal visits and wine.[citation needed]

Living on the outside[edit]

For the families of the interned, and the Italian-Canadian community in general, the early 1940s were not kind.

In addition to public hostility, ethnic slurs and some acts of vandalism, Italian businesses were boycotted, and many men and women lost their jobs. Those working at Dofasco and Stelco were let go for fear of sabotage. In Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, other miners didn't want to work alongside Italian miners, halting operations.

Thousands of Italian-Canadian families were denied relief across Ontario, and forbidden to speak Italian and congregate in groups larger than five.

Toni C, a 95-year-old Italian Canadian resident currently living in Toronto, vividly recalls being fired from her job at the Toronto Post Office soon after June 10, 1940.[citation needed] She eventually found employment in the garment district thanks to a kind Jewish employer who empathised with her situation.

Toni also recalls when her university-educated Italian-Canadian neighbours—who went on to become major Canadian developers—were gathered up with other Italians and brought down to the CNE grounds before their transfer to Petawawa. "Their mother told me to rush down to the CNE to bring her sons their warm sweaters and their rosaries", says Toni.


Fai del bene e scordatelo, fai del male e pensaci (Do some good and forget it, do evil and think about it)

For 50 years, many[who?] in the Italian-Canadian community were unaware of the events leading up to June 10, 1940, or about the internments, for various reasons, but primarily because the interned men and their families chose to erase this episode of their lives and not speak about it privately or publicly.

Then in 1990, largely through the lobbying efforts of the National Congress of Italian Canadians, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney acknowledged this fact during a luncheon speech and offered his apology; to date, however, no official apology has been made in the House of Commons.

In 2005, Ottawa signed an agreement in principle offering $2.5 to the National Congress of Italian Canadians Foundation for various commemorative programs.

In 2008, the Conservative government established the Community Historical Recognition Program, which set aside $5 million specifically to deal with the Italian question—but no apology.

In May 2009, Montreal MP Massimo Pacetti tabled a private members bill asking for a formal apology, financial redress, and a special postage stamp commemorating the internment of Italian-Canadian citizens (Canada Post opposes the stamp proposal).

Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, rejected Pacetti's bill during a Heritage Committee meeting in November 2009.

In 2013, as a part of the permanent exhibition Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of World War II at the Columbus Centre in Toronto, funded by Villa Charities Inc and Citizenship and Immigration Canada, artist Harley Valentine created a monument recognizing the internments called "Riflessi: Italian Canadian Internment Memorial". The main statue is composed of several profiles—a (grand)father, internee, pregnant mother, and child—that combine to form a single figure in mirror polished stainless steel. The multiple profiles represent the full communal trauma that was caused by the locking up of individuals. The commission was to commemorate not only the dark history of internment, but also the perseverance of the Italian–Canadian community to put internment behind them and emerge in the decades following as a cornerstone of modern Canada. To that end, Valentine placed an empty marble plinth facing the statue from the opposite end of a tiled pathway, onto which visitors are able to step and see themselves reflected in the mirrored statue, completing the piece by establishing the present's connection to its past.


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