Today is the 81st anniversary of the internment of Italian Canadians during the Second World War. I am always amazed at how little is known -even by members of the Italian Canadian community-about this time in history when it was a crime to be Italian. In light of very recent events, I will take this teachable moment as an opportunity to increase awareness.
On June 10th 1940, Italy declared war on the UK, and Canada declared war on Italy. Within minutes, Italians living in Canada became ‘enemy aliens’, considered a threat to national security. Under the War Measures Act and DOCR (Defence of Canada Regulations) 31,000 Italian Canadians were fingerprinted and required to report to the RCMP on a regular basis. 610 Italians were taken from their families and sent to remote internment camps in Ontario, Quebec, Alberta and New Brunswick.
None of the internees were ever charged with a crime and were held prisoner for up to 4 years. The average time was 16 months. Internees ranged in age from 16-67 years and also included Canadian born Italians and 4 women. When eventually released, they were expected to pay the incidental costs of their internment. For generations, this event had long lasting, devastating effects on the internees and their families, and the Italian Canadian community as a whole.
Families had to cope with the trauma of seeing their spouse, parent or grandparent taken away, not knowing why, where to, or what would happen to them. In most cases, those interned were the main income earner for the family. Assets were seized and accounts frozen. Many businesses were forced into bankruptcy. There was no assistance from the government. For the entire community, this discrimination resulted in loss of work, loss of dignity and status. They suffered vandalism, verbal abuse, violence and shame, as well as fear for future generations. Little to no discussion occurred afterwards, as the internment was seen as shameful and most chose to remain silent-even with their own families. Many families were afraid to speak Italians to their children and grandchildren, and some even anglicized their names. A fellow AICW member whose father was detained but not interred told me about what it was like for them, even years afterwards. Rocks were thrown at their houses, and black-out curtains were used on basement and garage windows, so as not to be caught in the act of doing things that we ‘too Italian’ such as making wine.
In 2012, the AICW (Association of Italian Canadian Writers) received a grant from the Canadian government to publish 2 volumes related to the internment. Behind Barbed Wire is a collection of short fiction, memoir, poetry, drama and visual art inspired by the internment. Beyond Barbed Wire is a collection of essays examining the internment from historical, social, literary, and cultural perspectives. Many of the works are written by children and grandchildren of internees. They are available on the publisher’s website as free ebooks.
Today, Canada is home to almost 2 million Italian Canadians. On May 27th 2021, in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized to those who were interned, their families, and the Italian Canadian community. Families of internees were also personally invited to a virtual reception, which scrolled through the names of those interned.
In his statement, Trudeau stated ‘Canadians of Italian heritage have helped shape Canada, and they continue to be an invaluable part of the diversity that makes us so strong. Today, we acknowledge and address historical wrongs against the Italian Canadian community, we also show our respect for their great contributions to our country. To the tens of thousands of innocent Italian Canadians who were labelled enemy aliens, to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt and to their community, a community that has given so much to our country, we are sorry. Chiediamo scusa.’
Learning about these events is a step towards ensuring history does not repeat itself. More information on the Italian internment can be found on the website Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of WWII.
Camp Petawawa 1940 from http://www.italiancanadianww2.ca/villa/home
Nicola Germano at Camp Fredericton, 1943. Collection of Joyce Pillarella
Internees escorted by military guards back to POW Camp Petawawa, 1940. National Film Board of Canada photo.