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Trudeau apologizes for the WWII internment of Italian Canadians

Camp 130 in Kananaskis, Alberta, is one of the places where Italian Canadians were interned during World War II. (National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada)
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TORONTO — When Benito Mussolini’s Italy declared war on the Allies in 1940, then-Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King ordered the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians.

Overwhelmingly men, they were held in camps and made to wear uniforms with red piping down the sides and red dots on the backs that resembled targets. They lost jobs; their families lost income. For some, the experience left scars that never healed.

More than 80 years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized in Parliament on Thursday for what he called an “injustice.”

“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 tens of thousands of innocent Italian Canadians who were labeled ‘enemy alien,’ to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt and to their community … We are sorry,” Trudeau said.

The planned gesture was welcomed by Italian Canadian groups and descendants of internees. But some historians urged caution, warning that a blanket apology could whitewash the fascist pasts of some who were rounded up.

Canada entered World War II in September 1939, more than two years before the United States. The country’s War Measures Act gave the government sweeping powers, including the authority to suspend civil liberties. King would use it to intern people who traced their heritage to countries with which Canada was now at war.

In some cases, authorities alleged that the Italian internees had ties to local fasci — branches of the Italian National Fascist Party — as well as Italian community centers or fraternal organizations. These organizations had many functions in Italian Canadian communities, including as social and cultural centers, but analysts say Mussolini’s consular officials tried in some instances to use them to spread fascist ideology.

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Some internees had sons fighting in the Canadian military. One internee, a textile union organizer named Quinto Martini, would in 1957 become the first Italian Canadian elected to Parliament.

No charges were filed against the 600 internees, who made up a sliver of the 112,000 people of Italian heritage in Canada at the time. Some Italian merchant seamen whose ships were docked in the country were also interned.

The Canadian government labeled roughly 31,000 Italian Canadians as “enemy aliens,” requiring them to check in once a month with the police or government-appointed postal clerks in a process that many said was humiliating.

“When on June 10, 1940, this House of Commons declared war on Mussolini’s Fascist regime in Italy, Canada did not also have to declare war on Italian Canadians,” Trudeau said. “To stand up to the Italian regime that had sided with Nazi Germany? That was right. But to scapegoat law-abiding Italian citizens? That was wrong.”

Internment was “quite devastating” for the families, said Roberto Perin, a retired history professor at York University. That’s partly because few Italian Canadian women worked outside of the home, and losing the main breadwinner was a major source of stress.

Frederick Lenzi, who owned an orchard in British Columbia, was interned at Camp 130 in Kananaskis, Alberta, from August 1940 to July 1941. He was alleged to have told a co-worker that Germany looked like it was unstoppable in the war.

His son dropped his educational pursuits during his absence to help manage the farm. The family talked little about the internment, but Lenzi did tell his grandson one story. One day, he said, while the internees were chopping wood, a guard had a heart attack. He had an opportunity to escape but chose not to, opting instead to get assistance for the man, his captor.

“He said that if he ran, they’d be chasing him forever,” Ray Lenzi said, “and he wanted to be a Canadian. He wanted to live in Canada.”

Among the Italian Canadians who were labeled enemy aliens were the parents of Frank Iacobucci, a former justice of Canada’s Supreme Court. He said his father’s Italian background cost him his job at an airport during the war.

“On the legal side, [the internees] were treated worse than second-class. They were treated as no-class, not deserving of any kind of proper due process,” Iacobucci said in an interview for a government-sponsored initiative to record the experiences of those affected by wartime measures. “It’s a stain on the memory of our country.”

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Canada, like the United States, also interned people of Japanese and German descent. Authorities forcibly moved some 22,000 Japanese Canadians en masse from their homes to internment camps and prairie sugar beet farms. The government confiscated their property and auctioned it off or sold it at low prices.

In 1988, prime minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized for the internment of Japanese Canadians and offered survivors nearly $250 million in compensation.

He also apologized in 1990 for the internment of Italian Canadians at a meeting of the National Congress of Italian Canadians. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which was responsible for arresting internees, offered an “expression of regret” for its role in 2018.

But for some descendants, it wasn’t enough. Joyce Pillarella, whose grandfather was interned at a camp in Petawawa, Ontario, said Mulroney’s comment was “just a throwaway line at a banquet hall” — not an apology in Parliament.

“No matter what the men believed in, you can’t arrest somebody and put them away for what they believed,” she said. “You can’t do that today.”

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Since taking office, Trudeau has delivered apologies for several historic wrongs — so much so that critics have asked if he’s apologizing too much.

This time, some historians urged nuance. They warned against a blanket apology or one that propagated a narrative that Italian Canadians were interned for no reason other than that they were Italian.

Franca Iacovetta, a history professor at the University of Toronto, said the internment caused suffering, and innocent people were swept up by police. But some of the internees, she said, were successful community leaders and business executives who were actively involved in fascist activities.

“I want to make it really, really clear that I am not defending the internment,” she said. “I’m not an apologist for the state repression that went on during the war.

“But as an historian who’s researched the period, taught the period, who knows the past is way more complicated and messy than sometimes later generations note,” Iacovetta said, “my concern is that the narrative under which the apology is being offered is simplistic.”

Perin agreed.

“On the one hand, the War Measures Act was like a sledgehammer … this was draconian legislation,” he said, but “if, as I maintain, there were fascists who were interned, why are we apologizing to them?”

Trudeau said the internment policy “went against the values we had gone to war to defend.” He said the internees, having not been formally charged, had no way to defend themselves or present and rebut evidence in open and fair trials.

Lenzi wishes the gesture had come sooner.

“I wish they would have apologized to my grandfather and his kids and my grandmother,” he said. “They were the ones who bore all of the hardships. It’s been a lot of years.”

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