This past April, the House of Commons passed Bill C-302, the “Italian-Canadian Recognition and Restitution Act,” a private member’s bill tabled by Saint-Leonard/Saint-Michel Member of Parliament Massimo Pacetti, asking the Canadian government to apologize to the Italian Canadian community for its wartime arrest and internment of innocent Italian Canadian civilians. The bill, supported by all opposition parties but opposed by the Conservative government, awaits passage in the Senate before it can receive Royal Assent and become law. Should the bill pass the Senate, it would mark a milestone, and for many be a vindication, after a half-century-old battle to obtain justice.
In June 1940, after Italy declared war on England and France, Canada declared war on Italy. Instantly, Italian Canadians, many of whom were Canadian born or naturalized citizens, became pariahs. With the stroke of a pen, they were declared “enemy aliens” by the Canadian government. Through the War Measures Act and a good dose of wartime paranoia, the government gave itself the power to suspend the rule of law, revoke rights and seize property, with regard to Italian Canadians. It also gave itself the prerogative to arrest Italians on mere suspicion and without warrant, and hold them indefinitely.
I first heard the words “Petawawa” and “Gagetown” uttered in reference to Italians when I served a brief stint in the Canadian army in 1970. That was also the year the Canadian government again invoked the War Measures Act, this time to deal with the FLQ-instigated October Crisis. It did not resonate with me at the time, but I eventually came to learn that Petawawa, Ontario and Gagetown, New Brunswick were the names of prisoner-of-war camps where hundreds of Italian Canadian civilians were detained, some for years, during World War II. None had committed any crime, yet all were suspect by virtue of their heritage – deemed enemy aliens because Italy was at war with Canada.
While the government justified its actions on the basis that it was thwarting subversive elements working undercover for Italy’s fascist regime – so-called “fifth columnists,” no evidence of anti-Canadian clandestine operations has ever been uncovered. In hindsight, it seems more likely that the Canadian government’s actions were designed to punish Canada’s Italian communities for Mussolini’s perceived betrayal of England through his declaration of war.
The authorities did not discriminate by economic class or social rank when it came to the arrests. Labourers, lawyers, doctors, priests, artists, small business owners and industrialists – educated people and illiterates – were lumped in with petty criminals and suspected gangsters. The only criteria for arrest were being active in Italian Canadian social circles or being anonymously accused of being a fascist sympathizer by fellow Italians. In Montreal, the Casa d’Italia was sequestered by the RCMP, as were buildings belonging to Italian cultural groups across Canada. Membership lists were used to identify, round up and detain suspects.
Italians who were not interned – counted in the thousands across Canada – were photographed and fingerprinted, and ordered to report monthly to the RCMP by virtue of the National Registration Regulations. With the heads of families under arrest or under surveillance, businesses were instantaneously shattered, families impoverished, and an entire ethnic group stigmatized – the effects of which endure. Says Antonino Mazza, author and translator of La Ville Sans Femme (The City Without Women), Mario Duliani’s first-hand account of life in a Canadian prisoner-of-war camp, “At the end of the war Italian Canadians began to hide their ethnicity, and later, those who had immigrated before the Second World War distanced themselves from the post-war Italian immigrants. They were too Italian for their taste. The established Italians wanted the newcomers to shut down their cultural volume. It took decades for the Italian-Canadian communities to re-establish themselves.” Many Italian Canadians changed their names or moved to places where they could live anonymously.
The scope of the calamity that befell the many Italian Canadian families, whose fathers and sons had been interned so many years ago, has yet to be fully grasped. The mandate given to me to oversee the restoration and expansion project of Montreal’s Casa d’Italia begun in 2006, led me to support the idea of establishing the first Italian-Canadian Archives. This, in turn, led to my having numerous conversations with the children and families of many internees, all known internees having passed on. The children, themselves now in their senior years, carry painful memories of that period.
These conversations left me stunned at how little information there was (and still is) on the official record. On the one hand, the families affected by the event were too traumatized and humiliated to talk about it – even decades later; on the other, authorities had no interest or desire to give the event any space in the public sphere.
It was after hearing so many stories that I came to understand how the mere mention of certain words, still taboo, could evoke painful memories for many; and how wounding and deeply humiliating the entire episode had been for the Italians living in many Canadian cities in the 1940s.
I was privileged to hear the first-hand accounts of one of the last-surviving internees and fellow Montrealer, Antonio Capobianco before his death in 2006. “Capo,” as his friends called him, had been the vice-president of the Order Son’s of Italy. Though he was born in Montreal, he was not immune from arrest and subsequent internment in the prisoner-of-war camp in Petawawa. In June 1940 he was 28 years of age, when two policemen were waiting for him in front of his house to take him away, as he returned from work. After his release in 1944, he became a strong advocate for the Italian community, and in 1949 he was one of the founding members of the Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association (CIBPA).
Throughout the 1930s, there were close ties between the Italians in Canada and the official organs of the Italian government. The Italian consul in Montreal Giuseppe Brigidi had played an important role in securing $5000, a substantial sum of money for the times, from the Italian government towards the construction of Casa d’Italia in 1936. The fundraising efforts had also enjoyed the support of many other cultural groups including Canadians of French, English, Russian and Jewish extraction. No one felt threatened when, during celebrations, Italians would parade in the streets of Little Italy, some dressed in full fascist regalia. Until his declaration of war, Mussolini was admired in the free world, including Canada, as a bulwark against communism. Quebec even had its own fascist party led by, one, Adrien Arcand, which ran candidates in federal elections. Arcand himself, came within a hair’s breath of getting elected to the House of Commons.
The favourable view of fascism and Italians in Canada was upended literally overnight with Mussolini’s declaration of war. “I clearly remember that day in June 1940,” says Romano Salvadori, whose father Giacinto Luciano was an architect. “I was playing near the Lachine Arena and saw two men nearby speaking in a low voice and looking towards our home. Concerned that something might have happened, I ran by them heading home. I was stopped by a stranger who prevented me from entering my backyard. ‘You can’t go in there, sonny,’ he said. ‘I live here, sir,’ I replied, and he let me in. My parents were in the kitchen with two policemen dressed in civilian clothes. They left with my father, who was only allowed to take the most essential belongings. His transfer to Petawawa was kept secret for months, until we received the first censored letter. Prohibited phrases that could ‘inform the enemy’ were cut out, thus cutting the words on the opposite side of the sheet.”
Another “well-to-do” internee was artist and sculptor Guido Casini. Only a few years before, Casini had been commissioned by Montreal city authorities to erect a statue of Giovanni Caboto at the corner of Atwater and St. Catherine streets, where it stands to this day. He was also among the artists who had decorated Madonna della Difesa Church with Guido Nincheri. His son Romano Casini, today in his seventies, remembers his father warmly, though the memories are tinged with the fateful events of the 1940s. “My father had nationalistic and patriotic sentiments, like most Italians. However, he was not engaged in active politics. As an artist, he did not earn a great deal of money. When he was taken,” remembers Romano, “we often went hungry. As a seamstress, my mother could not make ends meet. My older sister Flora had to quit school against her will. She found a job as a secretary at the Mount Royal Hotel to help the family survive. She is still disturbed by all of this and refuses to talk about it.”
Alfredo D. Sebastiani immigrated to Montreal from Pescara between the wars, and found a job in a shoe factory. Ambitious and determined, he saw an opportunity to buy the factory where he worked. Soon he bought another shoe factory and then another. Before long, he was employing more than 400 people and was probably one of the richest men in Montreal. His La Gioconda Shoe Manufacturing Company produced the most sought-after shoe models of the time – including a jewel-encrusted model sent to the Queen in London in the 1930s. In 1934 Alfredo donated $1000 to the fund to build the Casa d’Italia and became its first president. In 1940 he was put under house arrest as an enemy alien. Nephews Antonino and Giuseppe, whom Alfredo had sponsored from Italy in the 1930s to help manage his business, were interned in Petawawa. “My father Giuseppe was released in May 1942 after almost two years of detention,” says Nick Di Pietro, Giuseppe’s son and Alfredo Sebastiani’s great-nephew. “My uncle Antonino was interned for 40 months. Neither was ever charged.” The arrests devastated the business. “When my father and uncle were released from the camp, they were barred from rejoining the company by Alice Sebastiani who, now in control of her husband’s business, determined it unwise to employ anyone labelled an enemy alien.”
While the arrest of members of the educated and entrepreneurial class had the desired effect of crippling the community, ordinary individuals with regular jobs were not spared. “My Grandfather, Adolfo Miele, was 56 years old when he was interned at Petawawa,” says Diane Miele Aucone. “He worked as a foreman for Dominion Coal at the docks just south of downtown Montreal. He was proud to say that he employed many immigrants in order to give them the chance to build a new life in their adopted country.” Adolfo Miele’s internment lasted two years. No reason was ever given for his arrest. None was required for his release, except that he no longer posed a threat, if he ever did. “My father recalls that when my grandfather was arrested,” says granddaughter Diane, “he and his brother offered to go in Grandfather’s place, but the RCMP weren’t interested in them. They wanted Grandfather Adolfo, the popular foreman and member of the Order Sons of Italy.”
Luigi Albino Ruffino was a waiter who immigrated to Montreal in the 1920s from the area of Turin. I became acquainted with Luigi Ruffino in 2007, long after he died, through someone who came to Casa d’Italia and asked me if I was the person who had been interviewed in a local paper on the restoration and expansion project of Casa d’Italia. The woman before me, a retired notary and the presumed niece of the deceased Luigi Albino, quickly handed me an envelope containing approximately 30 documents from 1902 onwards, belonging to him. She asked me if it was true that the Casa d’Italia would create an archive of the Italian community. “Yes,” I replied. “Then these documents belong to your community,” she said.
Looking at the documents is how I came to know and befriend Luigi Albino. I followed him from his birth to his military service, and then from his visa application to his transatlantic voyage on the Pennland, and finally to his arrival in Montreal, where his brother lived on Cathcart Street. Luigi was a handsome man. A picture taken in Dominion Square in 1927 shows him happy. His letter of severance from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company in 1935 states that he was a good employee. I opened a folded card and found the 1940 National Registration Regulations which required him to report to the RCMP during the war years, his Certificate of Exemption with fingerprints, and finally a citizenship certificate wrapping up 25 years of personal history.
I asked myself why he would have held on to all these papers. Maybe the drama for him never ended. I kept staring at his pictures and wondered why he fascinated me. Was it because his pictures reveal a certain sadness in his eyes, or was it that in spite of all the adversity, he finally achieved his goal of becoming a Canadian citizen. The 1940 National Registration Regulations and his Certificate of Exemption with his fingerprints said it all. He was one of those people who came to Canada for a better life and was caught in a web spun by forces greater than him. Luigi was neither a subversive nor a spy, just someone who, like countless people like him, people with names like Carbone, D’Amico, Dieni, D’Iorio, Nincheri, Esposito, Corbo – fathers, sons, husbands – was simply looking for a place in the sun.
Though today Canada has a stellar reputation as a champion of tolerance and human rights, the Canadian government has not yet come to terms with its internment of Italian-Canadians. It has not yet officially recognized the suffering it caused individuals and families who were stripped of their property as well as their rights and privileges as citizens – and their honour and dignity as human beings. So that our children may continue to carry with them pride for our country, it is our moral obligation to preserve for them the stories, no matter how painful and disturbing, that recount the difficulties endured by their forefathers in their journey to become proud Canadians.
Pasquale L. Iacobacci
Director General, CCPI-Casa d’Italia.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 20.