Fiorello La Guardia, the larger-than-life mayor of New York City, was the big draw at the Third National Conference of the Canadian Federation of Municipalities on June 10, 1940. It was definitely a coup to have one of the most sought-after speakers in North America travel to Ottawa. By coincidence, this was also the day that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini would declare that Italy would join the Second World War on the side of Germany – a day that the Ottawa Italian Colony would never forget.
Arriving at Uplands Airport on the American Airlines flagship Albany in a style meant to impress, La Guardia had come to speak on topics of interest to mayors. It was known that he could wax eloquent and at length in German, Croatian, French, Hungarian, Italian and Yiddish. On this trip he was accompanied by three magnificently clad special aides, who represented the fire, police and sanitation departments of the City of New York. In contrast, the mayor was dressed in a conservative navy blue serge suit and light grey fedora. The Ottawa Evening Citizen did not fail to note that the aides, who were all over six feet tall and always travelled with him, wore suits garishly festooned with gold braid.
The mayor was also known for making frequent use of modern communication technologies, addressing his constituents regularly through radio broadcasts. So it was no surprise that the black limousine ferrying him from the rural outskirts of Ottawa was equipped with a car radio that picked up President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech that morning from Washington D.C. In it the president announced that Italy had entered the war and that the U.S. fully supported the U.K. and Canada. The mayor’s imposing entourage – of fifteen automobiles carrying American and Canadian dignitaries, and motorcycle escorts in front and in back of scarlet-clad RCMP officers and city police – still ground to a halt to let a farmer and his herd of dairy cows cross the road in a time-worn leisurely fashion.
Mayor La Guardia had never held back on his condemnation of Adolf Hitler. In 1937 he had created an international incident when he criticized Hitler as “menacing world peace and deserving be made a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors.” The German embassy in Washington launched a formal complaint and La Guardia made headlines across North America. The mayor had made his feelings about Hitler’s regime known at gatherings, including at the women’s division of the American Jewish Congress and at a rally before 20,000 anti-Nazis. La Guardia was definitely on home turf. His mother, Irene Coen, born in Fiume, Italy, was Jewish. His ties to the Jewish community at home and in Europe ran deep, and he was kept abreast of developments in Europe directly by the people who were experiencing the brutality of Hitler’s repressive regime on a daily basis. He spoke with up-to-date information and true conviction.
When it came to the Fascist regime in Italy, Mayor La Guardia had been far more circumspect. Weighing his public comments carefully, he knew that coming down as either pro or con would lose him votes. In Canada, opinion within the locally neglected Italian colonies was divided. The Fascist regime had spent much time and money courting the Italian emigrant population with propaganda on the wonders of modern Italy, trips to the home country on the luxury ship, the Rex, and building pride in ancestral roots. Along with other Italian-American leaders whose opinions were sought by elected politicians and journalists, La Guardia did not criticize Italy publicly when Mussolini issued antisemitic decrees in 1938, but he finally censured Italy in 1940 when Italy entered the war on the side of Germany. At the time, the United States had yet not formally entered the war.
Mayor La Guardia was not known for limiting himself in his wide-ranging fiery speeches. He was known for cutting through red tape and getting things done for ordinary people. While he worked hard to project an affable populist persona, he possessed a keen intellect that helped him gain the trust of leaders on all sides of the political spectrum, from right-wing Republicans to die-hard unionists.
Having heard President Roosevelt’s speech in his car, he said: “I have never heard anything as wonderful as the president’s speech. I was wondering how far I could go in my speech. Now I will be able to open my mouth and say what I want to.” It was obvious that sanitation, fire and policing would take a back seat.
In addition to speaking to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, he would take time to get together with his First World War buddy, Canadian hero and flying ace, Billy Bishop. It had been over twenty years and a lifetime of experiences since they had gotten together. At the time of the First World War, La Guardia at age 35, had taken an unpaid leave away from the United States 65th Congress. Having taken flying lessons in Mineola, Long Island, he qualified to join the American Army Signal Corps. Airplanes were a new addition to warfare then, and the U.S. Air Force had yet to be formally created.
La Guardia was posted in Foggia, Italy, and put in charge of training American airmen. Captain La Guardia would take matters into his own hands and refuse orders to send his men up in rickety planes that he deemed to be death traps. Faced with a court martial, he threatened to go back to Congress to raise a stink. The court martial did not materialize. By 1918 La Guardia was chosen to represent the U.S. Army and Navy aircraft board based in Rome, effectively putting him in charge of training all American pilots in Italy.
In Ottawa, on the evening of the 10th, La Guardia had been in touch personally with President Roosevelt to get the go ahead for the content of his speech.
The focus in the news that day had been on Mussolini’s actions, but threats to people of Italian origin in the United States were on La Guardia’s mind. He must have been aware of the actions that had ensued following the enactment of the War Measures Act in 1939 in Canada, among them the internment of German Canadians. He took time to “broadcast a plea to the 1,000,000 persons of Italian descent in New York to preserve neutrality in the face of Italy’s declaration of war.” Canada, an important ally of the United States, was now at war with both Italy and Germany. One of America’s most influential politicians was in Canada that day.
By 10 pm that night the people of Canada knew that they were siding with Britain and France and were at war with Italy. Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Mackenzie King had addressed the House of Commons. He had declared: “May I add for the information of honourable members in the House, that appropriate steps have already been taken to ensure within Canada itself any threat in internal security arising out of the action of the Italian dictator and his Fascist Forces.” In his speech to the nation on the radio that night Mackenzie King elaborated further: “The minister of justice has authorized the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to take steps to intern all residents of Italian origin whose activities have given ground for the belief or reasonable suspicion that they might in time of war engage in activities prejudicial to the prosecution of the war.”
Being suspect was all that was needed for internment. This was decisive action on the home front by Canadian politicians that, it was believed, would keep Canadians safe in their beds. Never mind that both the RCMP and the Canadian Government knew little of what was actually going on within the Italian colonies.
That night in his diary the prime minister wrote: ”Then went to the Chateau to call on Mayor La Guardia. He was in his shirt sleeves listening to a repeat of the president’s speech. Some other U.S. mayors were present, as well as attendants in uniform… Had a little talk with La Guardia, who told me that Roosevelt has told him ‘to go full length’ re America’s determination to help her allies and her sympathies. He told me that he was going to go very hard on Mussolini.” There was no mention in his diary of the enactment of the War Measures Act.
Earlier that evening the reunion between La Guardia and Honorary Air Marshall Billy Bishop took place at the home of the U.S. chargé d’affaires, where they mingled with senior Canadian politicians, including the minister of munitions and supplies, private-sector big wigs and many mayors.
The next day the newspaper reports in Ottawa made much of La Guardia’s speech and his nostalgic get-together with Billy Bishop, but they made no mention of the provisions of the War Measures Act. There was no questioning in the papers as to what the actions announced by Prime Minister Mackenzie King meant.
Meanwhile, during that night, people in the Italian colonies were having their lives upended. Communities were divided and in places like Ottawa arguments and accusations as to who reported who to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have lasted into the 21st century. Books have been written about internees and the internment, and finally a formal apology was made in the House of Commons by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 27, 2021, but there has been little focus on the impact of the War Measures Act during the Second World War on Italian communities in Canada.
Did Fiorello La Guardia’s visit to Ottawa on those fateful days have any impact on people’s perceptions of Italian Canadians? We will never know, but La Guardia’s very public identification as an Italian American and his dedicated work on the Joint Board of Defense as the American Chairman and his actions at the end of the Second World War as the Director General of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration just may have helped to soften attitudes. La Guardia received credit for using his influence to shorten the period that Italian-born Americans were deemed to be enemy aliens to 10 months, but the displacement and damage to families and communities persisted. In Canada, the War Measures Act remained in place until the war’s end in 1945.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s visit to Ottawa on June 10, 1940 was covered extensively by Canada’s major newspapers, including the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Evening Citizen.
Ariella DalFarra was born in Belluno, Italy, and was raised in Scarborough, Ontario. She has been active in the Ottawa Italian-Canadian community since 1980, and has a strong interest in the Italian immigrant experience in Canada.