TORONTO - Prime Minister Trudeau will rise in the House of Commons, tomorrow, May 27 and offer apologies to a class of Canadians for what their Canadian government of the day did to them, 80 years ago. Briefly, it declared them “enemy aliens”.
That designation caused many to lose their jobs, depriving their families of sustainable income, making their homes prone to the designs of rapacious municipal officials eager to expropriate for non-payment of property taxes. It subjected all of them to placement under police surveillance, exposed them all to vexatious and malicious ridicule and lead more than 700 individuals being interned in concentration camps without due process.
None were ever charged with anything, not even jaywalking. Obviously, none were ever convicted of anything. Did I mention that most of them had been born here in Canada or were raised here from childhood?
Their “crime”? They we were of Italian ethnicity. Overnight, the designation “converted” them from being valuable members of the Canadian federation to being labeled Fascists, Nazis, Imperialist… vermin and a menace to a jingoistic pro-Britain, pro-war, power structure in control of government.
I am not a revisionist who sees things differently from one day to the next or according to the “evolved” circumstances of the moment. Constitutional rights as citizens (British subjects of the day) did not permit what the government of Mackenzie King did to those Canadians (primarily German, Italian and Japanese in origin), as they would not today.
The war Measures Act was an illegal initiative against Canadian citizens, period. So, the government enacted the War Measures Act as “cover” to allow for the commission of illegal acts without retribution.
Political discourse in wartime amounted to “bloodlust” and it took no prisoners, so to speak. In fact, the biggest debate of the day targeted Francophone Canadians’ reluctance to enlist in the service of the military for a war they considered “none of their business”. The ensuing “Conscription Crisis” aimed at pressing them into service nearly tore our Confederation to shreds.
It was not an uplifting exercise; and for what? In the end, only one conscript died, when he fell off a transport ship leaving Halifax harbour for Europe. Nonetheless, Italian Canadians felt a duty to participate in the war effort.
Young Italian Canadians did not wait for conscription. They enlisted for military service pro Canada. It is a bitter tale that few can tell. Their tortuous motivations would certainly be illuminating. At the very least, they would have partaken in the Liberation exercise, or so goes the argument.
My cousins, Canadian born and bred, enlisted. Their service did not earn their families any grace in Canada. My uncles, born here at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century wondered what they had done to deserve the animus they suffered daily. The family of my former colleague, the Hon. Joe Comuzzi, went through the same ordeal, even though his brother served in the Canadian Armed forces.
Italian cultural and community had to be disbanded, at least temporarily. A prize initiative like the acquisition of what is now the Italian Consulate on Beverly and Dundas in Toronto (then the heart of the Italian community) was confiscated and turned into a barracks for the RCMP – a hub from which to send out daily harassment patrols among the families of the internees. All nightmares eventually come to an end. Italian Canadians are nothing if not resilient. But it must have been difficult to live with unmerited stigmas and denigrating labels like “gumba”, “dago”, [later] “DP” and “wop”. The road back to respectability was long and tortuous. There has been no shortage of heroes in that exercise – to Canada’s benefit, if I may be so immodest.
The Corriere Canadese, founded in 1954, has proven to be an invaluable instrument in that exercise. It has proved over and again that an independent communications voice is the only defense any community has against oppressive behaviour by elected officials or social tyrants. When the medium, Canada’s and North America’s only daily hardcopy and digital newspaper, suffered an ignominious collapse in 2013, fair weather advocates of diversity and inclusion were as scarce as the friends of the Internees.
It is a maxim that defeats are orphans and victories have a thousand fathers. Prime Minister Trudeau will know that language is central identity. When he stands in the House of Commons tomorrow, he should pay special mention to Donato Montesano and his recently deceased French-Canadian wife, Madeleine Brazeau, for taking up the challenge to revive what was, and has returned to be, the iconic voice of the Italian Canadian culture in Canada. Were he and his collaborators, Sam Primucci and Tony Pascale invited to be present in the House for the occasion?
The Apology has been long in coming. Prime Ministers from Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney and Paul Martin have all wrestled with the concept. Paul Martin structured a financial package to compensate victims and their heirs. Without being immodest, I worked with him on the funding for an associated education program. When the election of 2006 put an end to that, my colleague Massimo Pacetti took up the cause via a Private Member’s Bill. Sophistry and political calculus killed that too.
Finally, tomorrow, Justin Trudeau will be accused of extending the apology for purely political gain. Surprise: that is the marketplace in which he works. If he gets any benefit, he deserves the political credit.
In any case he is doing the right thing.
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