Special Agent 203: The Motivations of Augusto Bersani

Bersani had begun to work as an RCMP informant in 1937 while he was still minister at the Italian Church of the Redeemer.

For Vincenzo Monaco, Monday, 10 June 1940, began as another typically long day of bread deliveries for Corona Bakery – a business he and his brother Donato had started in the early 1930s. He loaded his horse-drawn cart with bread and left the bakery at 7:00 a.m. expecting to complete his route and return by 6:00 p.m. Whether Monaco was aware that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had declared war against the Allies just after 1:00 pm Montreal time is unknown. At some point along the way, however, Monaco was stopped by plain-clothed officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and taken into custody as a suspected fascist. Unable to return the horse and cart to the bakery, it was left to wander the streets of Montreal. Monaco was taken to Fort Saint-Jean in present day Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and held for three weeks before being transferred to the Petawawa Internment Camp.After four months of internment, Monaco was interviewed by Justice James Duncan Hyndman, a former Supreme Court of Alberta judge appointed by the federal Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, to review the cases of internees who objected to their internment. (Section 26 of the Defence of Canada Regulations, a series of regulations introduced as part of the War Measures Act, allowed an internee to formally object to his or her incarceration within thirty days of being interned.)

When Justice Hyndman asked Monaco why he thought he had been interned, the Montreal baker replied that someone seeking revenge had given authorities false information against him. When pressed further, Monaco told the judge that he believed Augusto Bersani, the former minister of the Protestant Italian Church of the Redeemer to which he belonged, was responsible for his present predicament. This was not the first time that Bersani’s name had come up during Hyndman’s inquiries. In fact, a number of internees from Montreal felt that Bersani had played a role in their internment. This prompted the judge, who was aware that Bersani was employed as an RCMP informant, to conduct his own investigation into Bersani’s credibility as an informant.

Judge Hyndman’s suspicion of Augusto Bersani raises important questions regarding the RCMP’s selection of informants. As has been well-documented by a number of scholars – most notably Greg Kealey and Reg Whitaker in RCMP Security Bulletins: The Depression Years, 1933-1939 – the RCMP placed more of its resources on the surveillance of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) than fascist groups during the interwar period. Though the RCMP first noted the presence of Italian fascism in Canada as early as 1923, it did not consider this political ideology to pose the same threat as communism – a position it would maintain even as late as September 1939. In a letter to Norman A. Robertson of the Department of External Affairs, Charles Rivett-Carnac, the head of the RCMP’s Intelligence Section, explained that the communists were a greater danger to Canada because they wanted to eliminate capitalism while fascism did not. Further, Rivett-Carnac wrote that “Fascism is the reaction of the middle classes to the Communist [sic] danger.”

The RCMP’s greater emphasis on the CPC meant that officers of this police agency went undercover and infiltrated different branches of the party. It appears as though this tactic was not used during the surveillance of Italian fascist groups in Canada. The RCMP’s focus on the CPC led to a reliance on informants from Italian Canadian communities to identify fascists who were potential threats to national and public safety because the RCMP did not have agents of their own directly involved in Italian Canadian fascist organizations. As a result, dubious individuals such as Augusto Bersani were employed to conduct this work. And in his role as an informant, Bersani wielded a great deal of power and waged a personal war against those who he believed had slighted him.

Little is known about Augusto Bersani’s life prior to his arrival in Montreal. Born in Italy, he was believed to have trained in the seminary to become a priest but, for reasons unknown, he did not finish his studies and boarded a ship to New York City. When exactly Bersani arrived in the United States has not been determined though it appears that he may have run into some kind of trouble that necessitated his departure for Montreal in the late 1920s. Once in the city, Bersani began to teach at the Point-aux-Trembles Protestant School, and was appointed minister of the Italian Church of the Redeemer in 1930. He served as minister until 1938, when he resigned from this position stating health concerns.

After Italy’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940, a number of parishioners from the Italian Church of the Redeemer were arrested and interned. This included church elders such as Vincenzo Monaco, Giovanni Fasano, Giuseppe Raco, and Vincenzo “James” Greco among several others. Reverend Domenico Scalera, who had replaced Bersani, was also interned. The allegations against these men included being a fascist or a member of fascist organizations such as the Casa d’Italia, the Dopolavoro, and the Italian War Veterans’ Association. At the time, the Montreal Casa d’Italia, like its counterparts in other Canadian cities, was an Italian social and cultural centre closely tied to an Italian vice-consul. It was home to offices of the vice-consul and other associated organizations such as the Dopolavoro and the Fascio Giovanni Luparini. It also provided space for members to play cards, conduct Italian-language courses, and hold band practice. The Dopolavoro provided members with recreational activities that could range from various sports leagues to dances and other social events. The Italian War Veterans’ Association or Ex Combattenti was comprised of veterans who had served in the Italian army during the First World War. Giuseppe Raco, for instance, was alleged to be a member of Montreal’s Fascio Giovanni Luparini and was “considered to hold very radical views and [be] a convinced Fascist [sic].”

Some internees were also accused of having donated gold to Italy and/or made anti-British comments in public. An examination of existing RCMP security reports and the personal papers of Justice J.D. Hyndman reveal that all of these interned parishioners were either informed on by Bersani or believed the former minister had played a role in their internment. Why was this the case? Was this particular Protestant church a hotbed of fascist activity?

Bersani had begun to work as an RCMP informant in 1937 while he was still minister at the Italian Church of the Redeemer. In RCMP security records he was known as S.A. 203 (Special Agent 203). How Bersani became involved in this type of employment is not known. Nor is the amount he was paid for this work. It is also unclear whether the RCMP screened potential informants and what that process might have entailed. As an informant, Bersani was required to provide a report, known as a Personal History File, on those Italian Canadians involved in fascist activities. The information collected on these forms included biographical information about the subject’s place and date of birth, vocation, marital status and the number of children he or she had. It also noted their involvement in the Order Sons of Italy or any other so-called “patriotic institutions,” such as the Fascio or Dopolavoro, and whether the subject had donated money to the Casa d’Italia or the Italian Red Cross.

Bersani also scoured the pages of the Italian-language press in Canada. In Bersani’s collection of personal papers there are hundreds of articles clipped from Montreal’s L’Italia Nuova and Toronto’s Il Bolletino Italo-Canadese. The names of Italian Canadians mentioned within these publications are underlined. Bersani did not only focus his attention on the communities of Montreal and Toronto, but also much smaller Ontario urban centres such as North Bay and Timmins. Bersani also appears to have cooperated with another informant known as Contact No. 17, but the identity of this person is unknown. (It is possible that Contact No. 17 is Camillo Vetere, the former secretary of Fascio Giovanni Luparini and editor of L’Italia Nuova, who turned informant.)

As one of the judges appointed to review the evidence against internees, Hyndman quickly began to question the legitimacy of allegations against the parishioners from the Italian Church of the Redeemer who had been interned. After interviewing Vincenzo Monaco and his character witnesses, Hyndman concluded that Monaco was “a decent, honest law-abiding man incapable of committing subversive acts with which he has been charged.” And that “it is my absolute conviction that this man is entirely innocent of any subversive act or intentions, and that justice can only be done by ordering his immediate release from internment.”

In two other cases, the evidence provided to justify internment was so unconvincing that Justice Hyndman asked for more information from the RCMP. Michele Tamiglia, for instance, was alleged to be associated with the Fascist Party, the Dopolavoro, and the Italian War Veterans’ Association. The RCMP also believed that he had donated gold to Italy and held anti-British views. During his interview with Justice Hyndman, Tamiglia did admit to being a member of the Italian War Veterans’ Association and attending its meetings at the Casa d’Italia. However, Hyndman did not feel this in itself was enough to warrant Tamiglia’s internment. The judge interviewed eight others who could testify on Tamiglia’s behalf and no proof that the man was a fascist was revealed. As a consequence, Hyndman requested that the RCMP supply him with more intelligence or witnesses to prove the allegations against the man. If no new evidence was forthcoming, Hyndman recommended that Tamiglia be released immediately. The RCMP appears not to have provided further proof against Tamiglia because he was released from Petawawa on 30 March 1941 – two months after Hyndman’s recommendation of release.

Nick Jerome was another internee from the Italian Church of the Redeemer whose case was reviewed by Justice Hyndman. Jerome denied any involvement in fascist organizations and, again, Hyndman asked the RCMP to provide him with more evidence. The RCMP forwarded the judge a lengthy report that in Hyndman’s opinion “add[ed] nothing of evidential value to the case.” The judge then declared, “I am forced to say that I regard [Jerome’s] further detention as a rank injustice.”

The questionable evidence against parishioners from the Italian Church of the Redeemer and the recurring mention of Bersani during interviews with internees led Justice Hyndman to seriously doubt the former minister’s reliability as an informant. This prompted the judge to conduct an investigation into Augusto Bersani in late November 1940 that included the family members of internees as well as non-Italians involved in the United Church of Canada. The exact number of people Hyndman interviewed is unknown, but there are surviving transcripts for eight interviews. The oral testimonies reveal much about Bersani’s personality and his motivations.

Shortly after the arrests of 10 June 1940, Bersani contacted the families of his former parishioners and feigned concern. He approached Anne Jerome and Filomena Monaco, the wives of internees Nick Jerome and Vincenzo Monaco, and said he would seek their release. In a letter written on Chateau Laurier letterhead dated 18 June 1940, Bersani told Anne Jerome that he was in the city on her husband’s behalf. He ended his letter on a positive note by stating, “I have good hopes for you.” However, that was the last time Anne Jerome heard from the former minister. In Filomena Monaco’s case, Bersani promised to deliver clothing to her husband while he was held at Fort Saint-Jean. She put together a package that included socks, underwear, a sweater, and a jacket which she gave to Bersani. A few days later Bersani paid Filomena a visit and told her that the clothes had been delivered and that her husband and his brother Donato were doing well. Yet, when Filomena wrote to her husband to ask whether he had received the clothing his response was that he had not.

But Bersani’s act as the caring former minister did not last long. He paid a visit to Mary Monaco, daughter of Donato Monaco, two weeks after her father had been interned. According to Mary Monaco’s testimony, Bersani asked if she had heard any news about her father. When Mary Monaco replied in the negative, Bersani stated that all those who had raised a hand against him at the church would be interned. During a similar visit to Filomena Monaco, Bersani was alleged to have said, “Remember when I was put out of the church and how I suffered, well now you are suffering.”

Hyndman’s investigation also revealed Bersani’s controversial behaviour while minister of the Italian Church of the Redeemer – actions that deeply angered members of the church. One incident involved Roman Catholic children attending Protestant schools. Since the Catholic school system in Quebec was francophone, Catholic Italian Canadians who wanted their children to learn English were in a difficult situation. Walter A. Watson, Inspector of Taxes for the Protestant School Board, discovered that there were roughly one hundred Catholic children at Protestant schools in Montreal. When he asked these students why they were attending Protestant schools they told him that Reverend Bersani had sent them. How Bersani became involved in facilitating this is unclear but he wrote letters to Protestant school principals claiming that Catholic children were actually members of his Protestant church, which allowed them to attend English-language classes. In a conversation with Watson, the principal of one of these schools, whose name was not recorded, described Bersani was a “racketeer” who used his position as minister for his own gain. This suggests that Bersani may have received payment or some other kind of favour for getting Catholic children into the Protestant school. Unfortunately, the sources are silent regarding any repercussions for Bersani regarding this incident.

Bersani was also involved in falsifying the church’s Register of Births. By doing so, he could bestow Canadian citizenship to a child born in Italy by changing the child’s place of birth to a Canadian town or city. It also appears that Bersani had implicated fifteen-year-old Antonietta Forcillo in this endeavour by having her make changes to the Register. When Bersani was confronted about this irregularity by Reverend Robert George Katsunoff, Minister of the Church of All Nations and Superintendent of the Non-Anglo Mission of the United Church of Canada in Montreal, he simply explained that it had been a mistake.

The most serious charge against Bersani, however, was his inability to prove that Christmas Cheer funds earmarked for the parish’s poor was received by them. The first incident occurred in 1936. The elders of the Italian Church of the Redeemer brought this to the attention of Reverend Katsunoff. Katsunoff approached Bersani to determine the veracity of this allegation. He discovered that the majority of vouchers that recipients of the relief were to sign actually contained Bersani’s signature. Katsunoff told Bersani that if this happened again he would go to the authorities.

The following year, the payment of Christmas relief was again in doubt. A vote was held by members of the church to determine if Bersani’s actions should be brought to the attention of superiors in the United Church of Canada. The majority of voters were in support of this course and the result was conveyed by Vincenzo Monaco to Reverend Katsunoff. The reverend then met with Bersani and demanded that he provide the receipt vouchers which he refused to do. When Katsunoff reported what had happened to the head of the United Church of Canada, Bersani was ordered to produce the vouchers or face the consequences. According to Katsunoff’s sworn testimony, after he delivered the ultimatum, Bersani flew into a rage and ordered his secretary to burn the vouchers. The disgraced minister formally resigned from the church in early 1938 citing ill health as the reason.

During the sworn testimonies of Reverend Katsunoff, Walter Watson, and Reverend Munroe, each was asked by Hyndman to comment on Bersani’s trustworthiness. None of these men trusted the former minister. Both Watson and Munroe declared that they would not trust Bersani even under oath. Even Italian antifascists did not trust Bersani. Ottawa’s Anselmo Bortolotti visited the former minister in Toronto after Bersani had relocated to the city during the Second World War. Bortolotti noticed a file with his own name on it in Bersani’s apartment. As the antifascist recounted, “When I pointed out to him that this file could prove a danger if the political situation ever changed, he said in a very unconvincing way that it only contained personal information.”

It is difficult to know when Bersani’s role as S.A. 203 came to an end. By April 1942, Bersani was living in Toronto and editing and writing articles for the city’s antifascist newspaper La Vittoria. His role was changed to associate editor in January 1943 and it appears as though Bersani ceased contributing content to the newspaper after that point. Very little is known about Bersani’s life after the war. According to Michael Monaco, son of internee Vincenzo Monaco, the disgraced minister turned informant moved to Buffalo, New York, where he co-owned a motel. He would send the Monacos postcards on a regular basis inviting them to stay at the motel. The Monacos, however, never accepted the offer.

The RCMP’s use of an informant like Augusto Bersani demonstrates the limits of using paid informants to gather information on others. The documents pertaining to Bersani reveal a corrupt and vindictive person who used his position as a Protestant minister for personal gain and as an informant for vengeance. Further research needs to be conducted regarding the role played by RCMP informants in the interment of Italian Canadians and other targeted groups during the Second World War. If someone like Bersani was the most prominent or most qualified person to act as an informant, it raises serious doubts as to whether the RCMP followed a screening process or had any criteria for hiring informants. Considering the amount of power Bersani wielded and the number of Italian Canadians on whom he forwarded information, the RCMP shares as much responsibility as Bersani in the unjust incarceration of Italian Canadians during the Second World War.

Travis Tomchuk completed his PhD in history at Queen’s University in 2010. His dissertation explored the formation of the Italian anarchist movement in North America through the migration of activists from Italy.

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