CorrCan Media Group

Canadian Italian internees: it wasn’t their country

Canadian Italian internees: it wasn’t their country

TORONTO – As sure as night follows day, the reactions to Trudeau’s public commitment to apologize, in Parliament, for the internment of Italian Canadians during World War II, have been as swift and as numerous as they have been negative.

One wonders whom they consulted on the matter prior to making the decision. In fairness, I might have been the last person from whom the “omniscient gnomes” in the Prime Minister O‚ce would have sought advice. But surely there is no shortage of people with “corporate memory” in the matter in the community.

The reactions cross party lines, beginning with 1000+ comments to the editor on a Globe and Mail online article the next day. They reach for some justifications, groping for a “legal” codicil on which to hang a hat, a political imperative to right a past wrong or a comparative to a contemporary, analogous example that cries for emulation. Me, I suspect some latent, historic, ethnic animosity lies at their base. For that, the Government of Canada, even if it was in the netherworld of 1940, should shoulder some responsibility. What did it hope to accomplish with the passage of the War Measures Act and the declarations of Italians (resident in Canada) as “Enemy Aliens” – people not worthy of Canada’s trust, or even less that of the “nobility of the land” (Canada’s ruling Anglo-Celtic majority).

War ushers truth and reason out the door while it opens windows to lies and hatred. The war Measures Act made it all legal.

The government of the day dispossessed Canadians of Italian origin of dignity, jobs, networks, reputation and in some cases of their property and means of livelihood. Some were jailed – no charges laid. The stated purpose? Canada, a semi-autonomous colony of Britain at the time, had been asked by the mother country to declare war on Italy, and needed to weed out potential internal seditionist. That included any Italian born in the country and any who were Canadian citizens – more accurately, British subjects, because Canadian citizenship did not exist at the time. It included people like my uncles and aunts, who were born here in the first decade of the twentieth century, or their children who were born here in the 1920s.

It included their families and the families of many others, like that of one of my former colleagues in the Parliament of Canada, whose off spring volunteered in the RCAF or the Navy.

It did not include Francophone Canadians. This latter group refused to enlist in a war they saw as an imperial a©air of little concern to them. The same government that passed the War Measures Act provoked a constitutional crisis with its Conscription initiatives to force Francophones to enlist in 1942. No document that I am aware of lists any conscripts killed in battle during the war.

At any rate, Canadians of Italian origin finding themselves in Italy were prevented from rejoining their families in Canada, until the late 1940s.

The wave of post-war Italian immigration (matched only by German and English counterparts) didn’t experience any of this. Many had difficulty understanding the issues of deliberate humiliation, expropriation and exclusion lived by their relations; they, themselves, had experienced other consequences of wartime conditions – death, destruction and invasion by armed foreigners to their country.

They coped, badly, but… Leadership in the Canadian Italian community, at the time, was provided by the “old hands” – i “vecchi Canadesi” – who pressed the issues of redress, integration, acceptance and equality for the better part of thirty years after the war, often with an unstinting vigour characterized by what other communities regarded as the transcendent value of collective responsibility.

Political agenda aside, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was responding to that element and that segment of society when he first proposed the tentative gesture of an apology in 1990.

But the people/heroes representative of that segment have by and large passed into history, even as their perspective and legacy holds some sway in Canada’s smaller cities.

Twenty-nine years after Prime Minister Chretien’s lieutenants re-proposed Mulroney’s issue of apologies, but, in the House, and Judging by the responses so far, one is left wondering what issue Trudeau’s “advisors” thought they would serve through another halfbaked commitment to apologize in the House of Commons.

More in English Articles