Memories to Memorial (Part 02):

The Internment of Ottawa’s Italian Canadians during the Second World War

Historical Background

On June 10, 1940 under the authority of the War Measures Act, Prime Minister MacKenzie King (in concert with the United States of America and the Government of the United Kingdom) issued an order-in-council, the Defence of Canada Regulations (DOCR) for the internment of “all residents of Italian origin whose activities have given ground for belief or reasonable suspicion that they might, in time of war, endanger the safety of the State or engage in activities prejudicial to the prosecution of the war.”25 Similar measures had been issued the previous September against German Canadians and would be followed in January and February of 1942 with the internment and evacuations of the Japanese Canadian population away from Canada’s west coast. The use of the DOCR was responsible for Canada’s charting its contradictory role both as a war effort partner supporting freedom and democracy while at the same time ignoring the democratic rights of half a million of its own people on the homefront.

In 1940 there were approximately 150,000 Italian Canadians then living in Canada. Half were Canadian born, while 41,942 had become Canadian (Naturalized British Subjects) citizens. The order resulted in 30,000 being immediately labelled enemy aliens. The RCMP moved swiftly into the communities and arrested those that they felt were Fascist leaders and sympathizers. The list of names had already been developed from secret agents, sometimes from the inside the community itself, who were willing to report their neighbours.27 They were registered, photographed, and fingerprinted. They needed to report to the local RCMP any move they made as their civil rights were ignored. Some were fired from their jobs and because of their enemy alien status they were not able to apply for public assistance, hence families were left in very difficult circumstances. Hundreds were arrested and eventually 619 men and 13 women were imprisoned in internment camps across Canada.

These internees were never charged with an offence, and the largest numbers were held for up to three years at camps at Petawawa, outside of Ottawa and at “hard Gagetown” the camp outside Fredericton, New Brunswick. As of October of 1940, Camp Petawawa, about 160 kilometres from Ottawa had 632 internees. There were 209 naturalized British subjects, 20 Canadian born Italians and the 403 Italian nationals. There were eight doctors, one dentist, and one lawyer. The remaining were blue-collar workers, labourers, hotel and restaurant owners, manufacturing and office workers. On their arrival they were strip searched and then given some clothing as well as two extra-large shirts with large red circles on the back. This of course would make them very visible to the armed guards who patrolled from towers and on the grounds of the barbed wire fenced area. If any of them tried to escape they were easy targets. There were roll calls several times a day and after the first few months of internment where they did little, eventually all able-bodied men were sent outside the camp to cut down trees and /or work in the kitchen.

The Community Response - Italian Canadian Loyalty - Fundraising for an Ambulance Faced with the uncertainty of internment and the ongoing surveillance of the community, it is noteworthy that Italian Canadians participated fully in supporting Canada’s war effort. A number of young men who served in the Canadian armed forces were sons of the internees. Italian Canadians of Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa continued to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada’s war effort through public-statements and fund-raising activities. Italian Canadians in these three cities created an Ambulance and Loyalty Committee whose efforts resulted in fundraising for the Red Cross. In an elaborate ceremony in Ottawa the delegates from the two Ottawa branches of the Italian Canadian Order, Mr. and Mrs. V. Zuana, Mr. A. Bortolotti, Mr. And Mrs. D. V. Graziadei, Mr. P. Casagrande, and Mr. and Mrs P. Fusi gathered with the Montreal delegation from the head office branch in order to have Mr. A. Spada, the secretary of the Ambulance Committee, present a cheque in the amount of $1750.00 and a red-covered book signed by leading Canadian Italians showing their commitment to the war effort. An Evening Citizen article of December 16, 1940 reported that the money was to be used to buy one ambulance and a second fundraiser was taking place in Toronto, which would contribute to the purchase of a second ambulance in January. The book with its many signatures was to be presented to Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King as a document to show, without a doubt that Italian Canadians stood loyally with the Empire. The book was received by Justice T. C. Davis the deputy minister of the Department of National War Services, and G. J. Desbarats O.M.G., former deputy minister of national defence and then a member of the national executive of the Canadian Red Cross Society. Judge Davis stated, “The fact that their own people may be at war against us is no evidence that these Canadian Italians are disloyal and in fact we see before us in concrete form this evidence of loyalty.”29 The Committee was extremely proud of its efforts and this event continues to resonate in the memories of the Italian Canadian community.

Association Re-building

Those who were interned were not helped by this attempt by the Italian Canadian community to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada, the Crown, and the British Empire. For some the injustice of the internment of Italian Canadians cannot be separated from the longer history of anti-Italian prejudice beyond the immediate pre-war Fascist years.30 It would only be after the large second wave of post Second World War, Italian immigration that some of the internal divisions within and outside of the community would begin to mend. There was then a return to some of the previous Italian Canadian community public leadership where new and newly invigorated associations were organized.31 The Sons of Italy became active once again and the National Congress of Italian Canadians was established in 1974. Since the 1990s both the Order of the Sons of Italy and the National Congress of Italian Canadians have sought redress for the internment of individuals of Italian origin in Canada and raised awareness of the issue in Canada. On November 4, 1990, speaking to the delegates of the National Congress of Italian Canadians Biennial Conference, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, acknowledged the injustices committed against Canadians of Italian Heritage during the Second World War. He apologized to all Canadians of Italian origin, on behalf of the Government of Canada for injustices perpetrated on a quiet, law-abiding community. This apology is not considered official by many, as it did not take place in the House of Commons. An official apology, that is still to become a reality, is still being discussed in the community. It was part of Bill C-302, a private members bill that passed second reading in the Senate but died on the order paper with the dissolution of the 3rd session of the 40th Parliament of Canada on March 26, 2011. This issue connects with recent scholarly32 attention to what official “apologies” mean both in the giving and in the absence. There is at present a near-universal realization that a society will not be able to successfully pass into the future without somehow dealing with its past. Whether it is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or the Chinese Head-tax redress, Canada and Canadians continue to deal with colonization, and immigration exclusions, and inclusions.

Historical and Personal Memory

After Jim Zucchero33 read Mario Duliani’s The City Without Women (1994): a chronicle termed by Duliani as “neither a journal or a memoir” but rather “a documentary novel” of internment life in Canada during the Second World War, he at first thought that this event had little to do with his everyday life and should be left in the past. However when he explored this topic further with his family members he discovered that memories of this dark chapter of Canadian history, touched closer to home and continued to resonate. Zucchero concludes his article “What we suffer most is Memory itself”, by stating:

Still their experience [Zucchero’s aunts’ experience of taunts, fear and violence to property] was not mine - at least not directly -- nor that of my peers. So I might be led to conclude that the broader impact of those events, and such stories, probably is relatively minor for most Italian Canadians of my generation. But these events, and the personal stories connected to them, do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in time and space and their meaning evolves and changes. Their significance cannot be the same for those who experienced those dark days as they are for those of us who have followed. And yet, their experience is mine in a strange and interesting way -- not mine personally, but mine collectively, through memory, history and ethnicity.

As Duliani himself noted in his chronicle, memory played a conflicting role in the internment camps. It was both one of comfort when loved ones were remembered, but also remembering acknowledged the painful reality of being separated from loved ones and being interned. As he stated “what we suffer memory itself.” So too, this project is one of memory, both historical, and personal as the voices of the descendants of the internees attest, it is through memory that this experience is made concrete.