Canadians of Italian origin find justice in apology
OTTAWA • After decades of digging through archival material and talking with the relatives of people of Italian origin detained in Canada during the Second World War, Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella says Canada's long-awaited apology gives her family and others the moral justice they have been waiting for.
Pillarella started learning more than 20 years ago about the struggles of the more than 600 people who were interned when she found a postcard sent from her grandfather who was confined at a camp near Fredericton, N.B.
She started combing through Canada's national archive before she started talking to the families of those affected.
“When I was starting to do cold calls to try to find families, a lot of people didn't want to talk to me,” she said in an interview.
“What I realize now is that they didn't want to talk because they felt insignificant, their story was insignificant. They were afraid of being judged wrongly. There was the shame of the story.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to deliver an apology in the House of Commons Thursday for the internment of Canadians of Italian background during the Second World War for several years at three camps in Petawawa, Ont., Minto, N.B., and Kananaskis, Alta. The apology is not expected to come with compensation.
Justice Minister David Lametti, the first Canadian justice minister of Italian heritage, said the internment happened following an order-in-council that was promulgated by the then-justice minister Ernest Lapointe, and it resulted in taking hundreds of people of Italian origin from their families and declaring about 31,000 as “enemy aliens.”
“Not a single person was ever convicted, and in addition, people weren't afforded due process,” he said.
“There wasn't anything other than the fact that their name may have appeared on a list somewhere.”
Pillarella said the government asked the RCMP to prepare lists of Canadians of Italian heritage after Italy invaded Ethiopia in the mid1930s.
She said Italian-Canadians had to do a lot of their business through the Italian consulates at the time.
“People had to be sympathetic with the consulate or at least appear to be, because otherwise they're not going to get anything done,” she said.
Lametti said people were put on RCMP lists for having made donations to the Italian Red Cross or for being members of certain labour groups.
Pillarella contacted some 150 families across Canada to collect the stories of the people who were interned during the war. She said the suffering of the women and the children left behind could be even greater than that of the men who were detained in internment camps.
“For the women in the 1940s, there were big families usually, I mean it was common (to have) six, seven, eight children. The breadwinner was gone,” she said. “Taking care of a household in the 1940s was a big, big job.”