Memories to Memorial: The Internment of Ottawa’s Italian Canadians during the Second World War - Part 6
Family Memories of Internment
Italo Tiezzi was only seven years old, and his brother Silvio was eleven, when their father Gino Tiezzi was arrested for the first time also on June 10, 1940. He was released on February 17, 1941 and on August 21, 1941 he was re-interned again. He was then released for the second time on September 20, 1943 but still had to continue to report once a month to the RCMP until 1944.
Italo was a child at the time; yet, he does have memories of the trauma of internment and his family’s involvement. He recollects not only the day his father was interned but in the years following he continued to hear his parents and others speaking of the events at the “College” which was a pseudonym they gave, sometimes jokingly, to the internment camp as the fear and shame associated with it made them uncomfortable with referring to it directly. In the home, Italo’s parents were very honest and open about their experiences, and saw both sides; his father went so far as not to be bitter about the experience, as it was wartime and like some of the other internees from Ottawa, he too felt that the government did what it felt it had to do in time of war, even though it was wrong to intern them.
However, Italo has some reservations. For him, a father was very important to have around at that time. His absence from their lives for three years, at a very vulnerable time during their maturing years, affected the two brothers in ways difficult to measure. While their neighbours continued to prosper, this day for the Tiezzi family had the opposite effect. On that fateful day, Italo remembers plain-clothes men arriving at the house and searching it. His mother had asked if they could wait for Gino Tiezzi’s mother Ada and his stepfather Nicola to come back from the theatre before they took him away. Rosa had beaten an egg yolk “un rosso d’uovo” for her husband to give him some sustenance. It would be some time before they realized what was happening. Italo remembers Silvio being taken to one neighbour’s and he to another’s and given ice cream as a distraction. Yet he also remembers crying and his tears being mixed with the ice cream.
The second time they came it was a shock. Italo remembers being in bed and hearing his mother shout “AGAIN!” He was just a child but after that first time that his father was interned he had said that if they ever came back, Italo would get the broom and hit them. And indeed, this time around, he did go to the shed to get the broom but his mother told him: “Not now, dear, you can’t sweep now.” They took Gino Tiezzi to the Ottawa jail where he was utterly devastated. After sixty days in jail, the authorities did not know what to do with him so Mr. Tiezzi himself asked to be sent back to Petawawa where he could at least be with his fellow internees. Italo feels it was probably at this time that his father developed an ulcer.
Mr. Tiezzi was a very active leader in his community and hence kept in contact with the Italian consulate. He helped out when he could; he was a big organizer, and did it all to help the community especially with obtaining funding to start up sports teams and cultural activities for the youth. This helped to give them the spirit and the pride in their Italian origins. At the time they were seen as the underdogs in society in Ottawa; however, when the tide turned, being connected with the consulate became very problematic. His first employment in Ottawa was as the first teacher of Italian at Academie Dante (today St. Anthony’s School) along with Signora Luisa Guadagni. He later was an employee of the Ottawa Electric Company.
Rosa Tiezzi, who before her husband’s internment was a traditional housewife, became instead, along with her friend Kay Costantini, a lobbyist to all the judges’ offices, and on parliament hill. They appealed to anyone who would listen to them, trying to get their loved ones released. They would be told that they could not get access but they would barge right in, ignoring those who were trying to interfere. Both women were born in Canada and therefore were fortunate to be able to speak English fluently. There were many women who were still grappling with the English language and were unable to do very much to help their family members who were interned. Some of the judges were sympathetic, while others were not. One judge told
Mrs.Tiezzi, who questioned the reliability of a known agent, “We use a dirty broom to clean the stables”, suggesting that there were informants working for the Internment Operations. There was even a discussion in the House of Commons that tried to remove the citizenship from those men who had been naturalized British subjects.
Judge Mercier, who was the most outspoken and sympathetic judge to the internees, made sure this idea was rejected. There were months near the end of Gino Tiezzi’s internment where the family did not know his whereabouts and the rumour on the street was that the men were being shot. Eventually they found out that he was transferred to Gagetown from Petawawa.
Italo recalls that his father was not mistreated in the internment camp and received three meals a day. He was spared any hard labour because he had only one kidney. Instead he was made a manager in charge of the barracks, making sure that everyone followed the rules. However, for the family left behind, the experience was much more difficult. At the time most women did not work outside of the home and Mrs. Tiezzi had to get a job to help support the family. There was no social assistance. Italo remembers his mother and Giuseppe Costantini’s daughter Eleanor getting jobs at Mayfair Pie Bakery on Rochester Street for $8.00 a week. On his mother’s deathbed, Italo once again saw the burns on his mother’s arms, from her work at the bakery that brought him back to that difficult time. Italo’s paternal grandmother lived with the family, and not fully understanding the challenges that lay ahead, wrote to her son about his wife working.
Gino Tiezzi, of course, was very hurt that he could not provide for his family and that his wife instead had to try to make a living. At one point Mrs. Tiezzi considered selling the family home in order to support her family but in the end she was able to get a better job in the government, which was very ironic. More ironic still was that through her new job she even came across some internment files.
While her husband was interned, she continued to appeal for his release. She hired a lawyer, Mr. Green, and there were hearings where Mr. Tiezzi was brought, in handcuffs. They were removed at the lawyer’s insistence. Other than that, sadly, the only outcome of these hearings was a $2,000.00 bill, which for that time was a huge financial burden. It was a very challenging time in the community, which was traumatized. There are both good and bad memories of that time. Italo recalls one child’s taunts, “Your father is a spy and he has a wireless under the cellar steps” and he admits to checking under the steps to find no wireless radio but only his toys. They did not get any help from charitable organizations but Silvio, who was an excellent student and athlete was given one year’s free tuition at St. Pat’s College.
Additionally, Sister Bertha Bradley, principal of Dante Academy, watched out for the boys at school and Italo remembers her strong support of his brother Silvio during a public speaking contest. His brother was the best candidate but Sister Bertha was told after the competition that Silvio could not win because his father was interned. Neighbours and friends continued to respect the Tiezzi family and in the Italian Canadian Community, Italo also remembers the family receiving help from the Chiarelli brothers. Antonio, who was a hairdresser and barber, gave the Tiezzi brothers free haircuts. Alfredo, who was a butcher, extended the family credit. Finally, Eugenio tried to help the family intervene with Judge Anderson in order to get Gino Tiezzi released. While they were not successful, years later, after the war, when Gino and Rosa Tiezzi visited Judge Anderson, he said, “If I had met you three years ago, you would not
have been interned.”
Italo especially remembers that both his parents possessed high principles and integrity. At different times each was asked to sign declarations that would help to release Mr. Tiezzi from the internment camp. However, both parents would not sign for something that they felt was wrong even if it meant that he would remain interned. They would not take the easy way out. Yet there was also the humiliation of not being able to get his job back as a meter reader inspector after he was released. Instead Gino Tiezzi took any job that was available including a few days cleaning toilets and then tile setting for McAuliffe and Grimes.
As already noted in the early history of Ottawa, the courtship between Gino and Rosa Dinardo was applauded by everyone and the wedding was attended by almost the entire Italian community in the city. They met in 1928 during the St. Anthony’s day procession when Rosa broke the heel on her shoe. Gino took notice and three months later they were married. Theirs was a popular and community oriented family, with the couple supervising students who traveled to Italy in 1935 and were active in the Sons of Italy. Their community activism
would continue after Gino Tiezzi was released. He was a founding member of the CIBPA Ottawa Chapter 1961 and the founder of the Italian Canadian Senior Citizens Club 1974. He also remained active in Canadian politics.
When the second wave of immigrants arrived in the post Second World War period, the Tiezzis were there to help the newer immigrants settle. In 1977, for his extensive community work, Mr. Tiezzi was awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal on the occasion of the Queen’s 25th anniversary of her ascendancy to the throne. The Tiezzi Provision Store and Post Office, purchased in 1945, served as a social service centre for post war immigrants. After retiring from the store, and in another twist of irony, Gino Tiezzi who in another time was considered an enemy alien was able later in life to serve in the House of Commons as an assistant messenger for the MPs. He died on September 26, 1980.
Italo marvels as to how his mother managed, because Rosa Tiezzi, like all the women during that awful time, had to be, mother, father, breadwinner, and sometimes a lobbyist. It is not surprising then to know that years later, after her husband was released and the internment experience was a distant memory, Mrs. Tiezzi got rid of everything, except a charcoal portrait of Gino, associated with the internment. She did not want any physical reminders of it. Instead by removing any concrete signs of it, she was hoping to put it finally in the past.
Italo, however, is not so willing to close the door to this experience that affected them emotionally, psychologically and financially, without establishing a clear historical record of the
wrong that was done to his father, his family, and his community. It happened. It was wrong. It needs to be remembered, He asks, “Could it happen again to other Canadians?”