May 27, 2021
OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a formal apology on Thursday to Italian Canadians who were interned in this country during the Second World War, recognizing in the House of Commons address the wrongs done to these citizens by the federal government.
After Italy allied with Germany in June of 1940, 600 men were interned in camps in this country, four women were detained and sent to jail, while approximately 31,000 other Italian Canadians were declared “enemy aliens,” prompting mistreatment and discrimination including fingerprinting and having to regularly report to local registrars.
This saw parents taken from their homes, leaving families without income and children without fathers. It’s a decision taken by the Canadian government that no one was held responsible for, and went against the values that Canada joined the war to fight for.
“To the men and women who were taken to prisoner of war camps or jail without charge, people who are no longer with us to hear this apology… to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt, and to their community, a community that has given so much to our country, we are sorry,” said the prime minister.
In his apology, the prime minister said that while it was right that Canada stood up to the Italian regime that sided with Nazi Germany, to “scapegoat law-abiding Italian Canadians” was wrong. “It is time to make amends,” he said in French.
“They were business owners, workers, and doctors. They were fathers, daughters, and friends,” Trudeau said. “They were taken away to Petawawa or to Fredericton, to Kananaskis or to Kingston. Once they arrived at a camp, there was no length of sentence. Sometimes, the internment lasted a few months. Sometimes, it lasted years. But the impacts, those lasted a lifetime.”
According to the government, the justice minister was given powers in 1939 to intern, seize property and limit the activities of Canadian residents who were born in countries that were at war with Canada, with the intent to protect against sabotage or subversion, but the regulations were misused. No criminal charges were ever laid.
In giving the apology, the prime minister told the story of one man, Giuseppe Visocchi, who was arrested in the summer of 1940 at a wedding in Montreal. Police told his family that he’d be right back.
He instead was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Petawawa, forced to wear a uniform with a number on the back marking him as an internee. It was two years before he was returned to his family and from there, worked to build a better life.
“This is not the story of just one man, or just one family,” said the prime minister, thanking these families for not turning their backs on Canada, rather putting “their backs into building it.”
“Internees and their families showed the way: integrity, solidarity, faith, and loyalty to Canada. For this, our country is grateful,” said Trudeau.
‘A MOMENT OF HEALING’
Trudeau’s apology was followed by remarks from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and other opposition party members.
In his speech, O’Toole also shared stories of interned Canadians and their families, describing the “terror” felt when police rounded them up and the trauma they experienced at the hand of the government.
“They were viewed with suspicion by their government and treated like second-class citizens often simply only because of their surname or pride in their heritage,” O’Toole said.
In 1990, former prime minister Brian Mulroney offered an apology at a gathering of Italian Canadian organizations for the treatment the community faced.
“What happened to many Italian-Canadians is deeply offensive to the simple notion of respect for human dignity and the presumption of innocence. The brutal injustice was inflicted arbitrarily, not only on individuals suspected of being security risks but also on individuals whose only crime was being of Italian origin,” said O’Toole, quoting Mulroney’s 1990 remarks.
Singh noted in his remarks that the average time people were interned was 16 months, calling it one of Canadian history’s dark chapters. “The pain, degradation, and anxiety these families had to endure didn’t have to happen.”
Reacting to the apology in an interview on CTV News Channel, former RCMP assistant commissioner for national security James Malizia, whose grandfather was interned for three years, said it’s an emotional day for his family and all of those who have been impacted.
“It’s a moment of healing, and certainly a confirmation that the families have been heard after being silenced for many, many years. And it’s certainly a form of redemption, one that justice has finally been served, and those wrongs have been righted,” Malizia said.
The apology for the harms caused and infringement on the civil rights and dignities of these Canadians has been long promised, and something that several Liberal MPs have advocated for.
The apology came without financial reparations, with the prime minister’s office pointing to $5 million in grants given nearly a decade ago for projects to commemorate the experiences of Italian Canadians during the Second World War.
In 2018, the RCMP issued a statement of regret for their involvement in the internment, agreeing that the detention of these Italian Canadians was unjustified.
Canada is home to more than 1.6 million Canadians of Italian origin, making it one of the largest Italian diasporas in the world.