Memories to Memorial (Part 01):

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


“Those who ignore history’s lessons in the ultimate folly of war are forced to do more than relive them.they may be forced to die by them.” Dan Simmons, (2011:12) The Fall of Hyperion.

Often, historical events that occur in a community are ignored, forgotten or deliberately hidden for one reason or another. This booklet aims to recount one event that occurred in our community as well as in many other communities throughout Canada.

As the son of one of the internees, I find it difficult, after over seventy years, to revisit the sad event. But as a former teacher of history, I see the importance of recording this story for Canadians in general and for young Canadians in particular.

I thank the hardworking committee that has put this booklet together and I invite the readers as citizens of Canada to reflect on these events and remember. Italo Tiezzi

Ottawa Italian Canadians and Internment
“the diasporic is an act of will and memory”
bell hooks (dedication, 1995)

In both Canada and the United States during the Second World War when Italy was declared an enemy nation, so too were her emigrants. In Canada many Italians were rounded up regardless of whether they were naturalized British subjects or not; however, in the United States those who had official American citizenship were spared. Italian Canadians and Italian Americans were interned in concentration camps. These past wrongs are still being challenged in both countries and recently in Canada, a federal government program known as the Community Historical Recognition Program (CHRP) was set up to recognize these injustices. (Canadian Heritage 2007) It is as the result of this program that this project has been developed to focus specifically on the internment of five Italian Canadians from the Ottawa area, their experiences, lives, and family memories.1 This project, as developed through the Community Historical Recognition funding agreement, is one such attempt by the Canadian state to deal with a past historical wrong.

 Early History of the Italian Canadian Community in Ottawa

Prior to the Second World War there was a thriving Italian Canadian community in Ottawa. In order to fully appreciate the impact the internment had, it is important to, therefore, understand the history, culture, and experiences of the first wave (1840 - 1930) of Italian immigrants to Bytown/Ottawa. The community that was built by the first wave of immigrants is significant as the backdrop that was dismantled by the impact of the internment of Italian Canadians.

Italian immigrants, during this first wave of migration integrated into the community originally known as Bytown, which by 1857 had become Ottawa and the capital of the Canadian province. Italian Canadians, many of them naturalized, were faced with challenges within a larger city that already operated as the seat of government and the hub of nation building. Additionally they were confronted with complex linguistic issues as Italian speakers integrating within the first bilingual setting at the crossroads of two communities: the French in Lowertown and in the English in Rochesterville. According to the 1911 Census, the population of Ottawa was 90,779. Approximately 688 were of Italian origin with 407 males outnumbering 281 women.

This community centred around a chapel on Murray Street where mass was preached and baptisms and marriages were celebrated. In 1911 the Servite order was invited to minister to the Italian community and in 1913 the newly built church Saint Anthony of Padua on Booth Street was consecrated. After a terrible fire in 1917 that burnt the wooden church, a decision was made to enlarge it and through the volunteer efforts and hard work of the congregation a newly renovated church was built.

Workers not only supported their families in Ottawa but also extended family members in Italy. Many returned to Italy after several years of working in Canada. To facilitate the transfer of money and to help with matters relating to trans-Atlantic travel and immigration matters, a local agent was appointed and a store front office opened at 85 George Street.2 Stone carvers and masons, carpenters, cabinetmakers, tailors, bakers, chefs, and barbers all provided much needed services to a rapidly expanding city. By 1914 there were at least 24 fruit and vegetable shops along with several grocery stores owned by Italian Canadians serving the needs of the greater Ottawa population.

Love of family and caring in the Italian community made it possible to survive in a land where language and customs were unfamiliar. By 1913 a mutual aid society associated with the church of St Anthony of Padua formalized efforts to help individuals and families facing medical and financial difficulties.4 The St.Vincent de Paul Society of St. Anthony’s Church, the Sons of Italy, the Italian Educational Society, and the Italian Women’s Society, were only a few of the associations organized in order to both help the community as well as become centres for social involvement. In 1928, when the dashing fun-loving immigrant Gino Tiezzi fell head over heels in love with Ottawa born Rosa Stella Di Nardo and secured her hand in marriage no expense was spared for their wedding. Six hundred guests, almost the entire Italian community attended.5 The community came together to also share its sorrow. On November 30, 1923 the church of St Anthony was filled with mourners at the funeral of Andrew Criffero and Joe DiLabio, two young men killed in a sewer cave-in on Monk Street in Ottawa.

A strong sense of family is often a given when referring to Italians, and a strong work ethic, exhibited in the sometimes dangerous roles they played building Ottawa’s infrastructures; however, what is not so readily known is the contribution they made to the early cultural life of the city through their music. By the late 1800s Ottawa was shedding its lumber town roughness thereby creating opportunities for high-calibre musicians to perform for ”society”. Uptown, across the street from Parliament Hill, the Russell House Hotel hosted the nation’s capital most important visitors including Oscar Wilde and Lord Stanley of hockey cup fame. The Graziadei family orchestra performed its glittering harp, violin, and flute music at the Russell House Hotel for many years.7 As early as 1871 Jean Varallo and Raphael Chracco, both Italian immigrants, were musicians in Ottawa.8 In 1922 the 42 member strong Italian Colony Parish Band performed for Italian Community celebrations.9 On Sunday, June 13, 1915, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen, the Feast of Saint Anthony Procession drew thousands of participants and spectators to the Rochesterville area.

It was this foundation of love of family, hard work, community support, and joyous music that was fractured with the impact of the Second World War and the internment of Italian Canadians.

To show how the media helped transmit the fear of Italian Canadians to the greater community: “Police Round up Dangerous Italians: Several Arrested in Ottawa, Many Held Across Canada. R.C.M.P. Head Battalion of 1,000 Men in Montreal and Arrest Scores in Most Extensive Raids Ever Undertaken in Metroplis”15; “New Flareup Against Toronto Italians: Arms, Ammunition And Literature Seized in Ontario Cities”16; “Angry Britons Stage Riots Against Italians in Many Places”17; “’Down with the Jackals,’ Toronto Residents Cry as Windows of Italians’ Stores are Smashed”18; “Coal Miners Refuse Work With Italians”(Glace Bay, NS)19; “Italians Subjected to World Scorn: New York Mayor in Ottawa Bitterly Assails Mussolini”20; “Italian Consul Burning Code Messages”21; “Italian Songs Are Ruled Out”22; “Rich Toronto Italian Held On War Act Count”23, and; “Drop in Trade of Italian Merchants.”24 The trauma and shame that resulted from the fear, humiliation, and confusion in the community would take years to heal.