Italian “Enemy Aliens”: How Canada Declared War on Its Own Citizens

An official of Montreal's Casa d'Italia arrested, (Montreal Daily Star, June 12, 1940).

“Sending civilians to internment camps without trial simply because of ethnic origin was not then, is not now and never will be accepted in a civilized nation that purports to respect the rule of law. On behalf of the government and people of Canada, I offer a full and unqualified apology for the wrongs done to our fellow Canadians of Italian origin during World War II.”
– Then-Prime Minister of Canada Brian Mulroney, Statement made outside the House of Commons, Nov. 2, 1990.

“To my mind, the application of the time-honoured principle of British justice, that a man is innocent until proven guilty, makes it impossible to curtail the activities of these slimy, subversive elements that are at work in not only this province but throughout the country.”
– Gordon Conant, Ontario Attorney General, May 7, 1940.

“When Il Duce marched to war Monday, he threw the switch setting in motion machinery which carried out the largest, most thorough and smoothest roundup of enemy aliens and suspects in the history of Montreal.”
– Excerpt from The Montreal Gazette, June 12, 1940.

“‘Down with the Jackals’ – Toronto Residents Cry, As Windows of Italians’ Stores Are Smashed”
– Headline in The Globe and Mail, June 11, 1940.

* * *

So, who were these “slimy, subversive elements,” these “enemy aliens and suspects,” these “jackals”?

Well, there was Antonio Capobianco, an accountant at the National Harbors Board in Montreal. The fact he’d been born in Canada and had a brother in the Canadian army didn’t prevent his being hauled away in handcuffs. And Joseph Costantini of Ottawa, owner of the Prescott Hotel. And Dr. Vittorio Sabetta, the only Italian medical man in Sault-Ste-Marie. And Dr. Luigi Pancaro of Sudbury. And James Franceschini, the man whose company had built many of the roads in Ontario. And Luigi Scattalon, a coal miner in Dominion, NS. And shoe repairer Francesco Zaffiro of Hamilton. And Luisa Guagnelli from Niagara Falls, arrested while her son was in the bath and not even allowed time to dress him.

The exact number of those arrested between June 10 and the end of October, 1940, isn’t known, but the figure could be as high as 6,000, with another 17,000 fingerprinted and photographed for police records. These RCMP records still exist today, despite the efforts of internees and there descendants to have the slate wiped clean.

In Montreal, in what was dubbed “the largest, most thorough and smoothest roundup of enemy aliens and suspects in the history” of the city (The Montreal Gazette, June 12, 1940), over 2,200 were nabbed in one day. In Toronto, 3,000 were detained in the month of June alone. The majority were released after detention lasting up to a month. The rest were sent to one of four camps: Camp Petawawa in Ontario; St. Helen’s Island in Québec; and two camps in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

According to official statistics, 597 Italian Canadian men were taken to Camp Petawawa. Eyewitness reports put the figures at closer to 700. Of these, more than 85 per cent were Canadian citizens, people who’d sworn allegiance to the King and who considered Canada their country. Also arrested and interned were 13 women, some of whom, like Luisa Guagnelli, were taken to the Women’s Penitentiary in Kingston. The men were jailed for periods that extended to three years and more, with an average stay of 16 months. Guagnelli was released from prison in the fall of 1943, after Mussolini resigned and Italy surrendered to the Allies.

And of what crime exactly had these men and women been accused? What acts of treason had they committed? Why had they suddenly been branded as “slimy, subversive elements,” “enemy aliens and suspects,” “jackals”? The arrests were carried out under the 1939 Defence of Canada Regulations (informally known as “The Enemy Aliens Act”), made possible thanks to the War Measures Act of 1914. (Yes, the very same one used in 1970 by Pierre Trudeau during the FLQ crisis). Section 21 of the Defence of Canada Regulations gave the Minister of Justice the right to hold without trial anyone whom the Minister felt could possibly act “in any manner prejudicial to the public safety of the state.”

The then-Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe took this in the broadest way possible and was quick to take measures to make sure “enemy aliens” wouldn’t subvert Canada’s fabric. On June 13, 1940, he said in the House of Commons: “The very minute that news was received that Italy had declared war on Great Britain and France, I signed an order for the internment of many hundreds of men whose names were on the list of the RCMP as suspects.”

In the propaganda press of the day, this was hailed as an incisive and well-planned operation that nipped subversion in the bud. The Montreal Gazette of June 12, 1940, reports: “Armaments ranging from powerful rifles, shotguns, revolvers and automatic pistols to sawed-off baseball bats and homemade blackjacks were seized by the police … Transfer of the enemy aliens suspected of possible ‘fifth column’ or sabotage activities was begun yesterday when a group of those held were moved in buses to an undisclosed destination … Customs, excise and immigration officers watched exits by train and by boat. Businessmen previously sworn in as RCMP special constables dropped their work and went to assigned spots as soon as they heard the zero hour had come.”

So one would expect, of course, that such a thorough rounding up of such a large number of suspected saboteurs would eventually yield substantial criminal charges. Perhaps, there might be revelations of an underground network of fascist sympathizers working to undermine the Canadian war effort. Or even actual proof of sabotage against the security of the Dominion – such as people sending off signals to waiting Italian submarines, or plans for blowing up public buildings.

As a matter of fact, not one Italian Canadian arrested and detained under the Defence of Canada Regulations was ever charged with – let alone convicted of – any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the war. Not one!

Their only crime was to have an Italian name or to belong to one of three clubs: the Sons of Italy, the Dopo Lavoro and the Fascio. Granted, some of them, through misguided loyalty to their homeland or simple nostalgia, did sign up for as many Italian groups and associations as possible, including the Fascio, which had connections with the fascist party in Italy. But, of those interned at Camp Petawawa, less than 100 had actually been members of the Fascio.

That, however, didn’t prevent the RCMP from rounding up everyone they could get their hands on: from millionaires to lawyers; from doctors to bricklayers; from bandleaders to university professors.

Some were taken out in the middle of the night; others in front of their families; still others on their way to or from work and not even permitted to inform their families. Their papers, invoices, receipts and private letters were confiscated. Doctors and lawyers had their confidential records taken away as evidence, and for names that might lead to further arrests.

In Montreal, the men were herded into military barracks where they had to sleep on the floor. Some were led through the streets while hostile crowds insulted them. In Toronto, they were taken first to the Don Jail, then to the CNE Automotive Building and finally to the Stanley Barracks. From there, they were taken by train to their final destination – Camp Petawawa.

Suddenly, decent, law-abiding men found themselves in an isolated camp, 160 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, in the middle of dense bush and surrounded by a pair of barbed-wire fences that were constantly patrolled by armed guards with orders to shoot anyone caught trying to escape.

The conditions may not have been of concentration-camp severity – families could send gifts; the food was edible; they were allowed one 24-line letter per week; and no one was beaten or physically tortured.

But it wasn’t quite the paradise that Ernest Maag, a Red Cross delegate from Montreal, reports in an October 3, 1940 letter: “The Camp … is beautifully located in the forest. The climatic conditions must be called ideal … The accommodations for the prisoners are absolutely first class … Sports and walks, recreational activities, classes, etc., are very well taken care of and organized.”

Almost sounds like a retirement home, doesn’t it? In truth, the men were separated from their families, forced to wear oversized shirts with red bulls-eyes on their backs (easier targets in case of attempted escapes) and made to perform tasks such as building roads and clearing land for the princely sum of 20 cents a day.

Having been accused of no crime, they couldn’t understand what they were doing there, why they were being treated like convicts. And their sentences were open-ended, adding to the stress: some were released after a few months; others remained in the camp until the war was over. Many were depressed and worried sick about their families back home.

As Antonio Capobianco says in a June 13, 1992 article in The Montreal Gazette: “Our families were not allowed to visit or write for the first year of our internment. Hundreds of Italian families were left to fend for themselves; often they were poor and hungry … Many of the internees’ families feared for their lives, thanks to the MacKenzie King government’s false accusation branding them as enemy aliens, saboteurs and fifth columnists.”

This inability to interact with their families proved to be the hardest thing for the internees to take. Most had been brought up to be the providers. Many had come to Canada on their own at first to lay the groundwork for the rest of their families. To be once more separated for months and sometimes years was a devastating blow.

And it didn’t help to hear the news from outside the camp: angry mobs in the heart of the Italian district in Toronto smashing store windows and calling for revenge; the boycotting of Italian stores by housewives who considered it a patriotic duty; violence in Nova Scotia where coal miners refused to work alongside Italians; the freezing of bank accounts so that not even the wives of the internees could make use of their savings; the confiscation and even selling off of their property, property which in many cases wasn’t returned.

But, for many, being imprisoned, losing their jobs, and being taken away from their families were all things they could eventually learn to live with. What they couldn’t stand was the idea that they might be branded as traitors – while at the same time their brothers and sons were fighting for the Allies.

Says Ralph Esposito, a member of the officer training corps in Montreal when the “Enemy Aliens Act” was passed: “Pretty ironic, isn’t it? … My father was taken away with no right under the law to have a lawyer … He was six months in Petawawa without a trial while I was in officer training for the army! … When he came home, he was a walking phantom,” (The Montreal Gazette, Nov. 11, 1990).

Some managed to adapt to the camp conditions better than others. Dr. Pancaro, for one, became chief medical officer at Camp Petawawa and tried his best to maintain a cheery outlook on life. Band leader Frank Ferri from Hamilton organized a camp orchestra. He played for the internees and, on occasion, even the guards, with a memorable Christmas Eve concert solely for his jailers.

Others were completely broken by the experience. James Franceschini not only lost most of his businesses but also developed throat cancer. When he was released for medical reasons, he discovered that the government was intent on taking away his few remaining businesses.

For some, the worst was yet to come. A month after he was released from Camp Petawawa, Antonio Capobianco was told by his boss at the National Harbors Board that he needn’t bother return. Joseph Costantini died in 1951, never really recovering from the fact he’d been separated so long from his family. Luisa Guagnelli would return home to find her husband and son waiting for her. But, at the same time, she faced suspicion and mistrust from people with whom she’d worked for years.

There followed several decades where many Italians were embarrassed to admit their origins. Some waited years before telling anyone about their ordeal; others even went so far as to change their names and to invent new backgrounds for themselves. This hurt not only those who were interned but also their children and even grandchildren. The missed opportunities were felt not only in stalled careers but also in a loss of culture and self-worth.

One of the questions most often asked is: How is it that this internment has been so little publicized? Why is it that even after then-PM Brian Mulroney issued an apology, some still raise their eyebrows in disbelief when the subject is brought up?

Part of the answer may lie in the fact people find it hard to believe that a country with an elected parliament would arrest and intern its own citizens, without laying any charges whatsoever. And without ever finding a single one guilty of anything.

Another reason may be the attitude of the internees themselves, personified by the writings of Mario Duliani, a respected journalist, prize-winning playwright and man of letters who, in 1936, had been invited to Montreal by none other than Eugène Berthiaume, editor of La Presse.

Duliani was arrested in Montreal and held for forty months at Camp Petawawa and at a camp outside Fredericton, N.B. In 1945, he published a fictionalized account of his internment titled La ville sans femmes; in 1946, it was published in Italian as Città senza donne. In his book, not once does he question why he’s being arrested. Nor does he rail against the political system that has effectively taken him away from a successful career: by 1937, he’d already made a name for himself by founding the French-language section of the Montreal Repertory Theatre.

Rather, he advocates that the internees put the ordeal behind them and go on with their lives, saying that the internment “seemed wholly justified by the political and military situation of the moment.” And this was the attitude held by most of the internees – a type of fatalism, coupled with a sense of nostalgia and longing to be once again amid family. It was almost as if, in some sense, the men felt guilty despite not having committed any crimes – that internment was an expiation for some guilt they had brought on themselves for some reason or other.

On his arrival at Camp Petawawa, after the train journey from Montreal, Duliani writes: “At last, here we are, in barracks, in the depths of a forest, in the middle of the night, with this atrocious feeling of being imprisoned, who knows for how much longer, not knowing what our loved ones might be going through, aware that they will not learn for several days that we are no longer near them, that we will not see them again for some time to come.”

That Duliani’s journal represented the only book-length first-hand account of life in Canada’s internment camps didn’t prevent its rapid descent into obscurity. And, in keeping with some unwritten code of silence about the period, it was only in 1993 that an English version of this valuable document appeared titled The City Without Women, translated by Antonino Mazza.

But that’s only par for the course. After all, didn’t it take 50 years for the government of Canada to recognize that a great wrong had been done to some of its most ardent citizens – and to issue, if not a formal apology, at least a form of mea culpa?

One can’t help but feel it is this lack of questioning that has kept a dark period in Canadian history hidden for such an intolerably long time. And has left a black mark hanging over an entire community. As one internee says: “The deprivation of my freedom, being torn from my family, being robbed of time, the loss of my money, all this I might still learn to live with without complaint! … But what I cannot come to terms with is the idea that my wife, a Canadian, and my Canadian-born children, may suspect I have betrayed our country!”

Still, it may not be too late. There’s definitely a lesson to be learned here, one that is needed just as much today as it was in 1940. Perhaps, with the charged political climate and the tendency to place the blame for the country’s problems on its newest arrivals, it is needed today more than ever.

That lesson is: Never again must answering “yes” to “Are you Italian (or Somali or Pakistani or Iraqi)?” lead to the summary denial of the rights of citizenship in this country. The price to pay for capturing a few potential subversives is just too great.

First published in The Eyetalian Magazine in 1993 as “Enemy Aliens? The Internment of Italian Canadians During the Second World War.” Reprinted by permission.

Michael Mirolla is the award-winning author of Berlin.

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