Canada is home to approximately 1.6 million Canadians of Italian descent. For more than a century, thousands of Italians — including my parents — have chosen Canada as their new home; a safe haven with endless opportunities, where the rule of law prevails and where diversity, inclusion and equality converge. From far and wide, Italian Canadians have contributed to Canada’s cultural landscape and economic vitality.
Unfortunately, our community’s history is also tainted by one particular event that took place some 80 years ago during the Second World War.
It was June 10, 1940. In response to the news that Italy was joining Nazi Germany’s war efforts, a resolution was unanimously adopted by the House of Commons and the Senate of Canada confirming our nation’s support to France and the United Kingdom.
That very same day, in an address to the nation, then prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King officially declared war on Italy and stated:
“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, endanger the safety of the state, or engage in activities prejudicial to the prosecution of the war.”
Suddenly, 31,000 Italian Canadians became enemies of the state. Around 600 men were taken from their homes and sent to internment camps without due process because of their Italian heritage. They had not committed a crime, and yet, their civil liberties were suspended and they found themselves imprisoned. Some stayed for months, others for years. Families were devastated and children found themselves without their father.
The suffering was far-reaching, and the repercussions extended far beyond those individual families directly impacted by this hostile policy. These events had a domino effect on many facets of the lives of Italian Canadians, both personal and professional. Many in the community were subject to hostilities, violence, baseless discrimination and verbal abuse. Many entrepreneurs lost business, patrons, and revenues; others lost work and the ability to provide for their families.
This is a very sombre event in our country’s history — one that our history books too often ignore.
On May 27, 2021, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on behalf of the Government of Canada, issued a formal apology for the internment of Italian Canadians during the Second World War. This was a welcome event and I thank the federal government for recognizing the consequences — emotional, physical and financial — of that shameful and unjust policy.
The internment camps have had an intergenerational impact on families and individuals and, in my view, has also contributed to the way the Italian community is too often wrongfully perceived and depicted in the media and on screen.
For the families of those who were interned and for the Italian-Canadian community, the apology will help in our collective and individual healing. For some, it may not provide full closure, but I hope it will serve as a reminder of how mistakes from our past can shape our present and influence our future. Let this be a lesson for future generations and a call to action to always do better, be just and call out and abstain from any form of discrimination.
Despite the hardships and the injustices, Canadians of Italian descent are a resilient people and I am proud to be a member of the community. As we celebrate Italian Heritage Month this June, I recognize the significance of the government’s apology and pay tribute to Italian Canadians, past and present, who have and continue to contribute to our country’s rich cultural mosaic.
Senator Tony Loffreda represents the Shawinegan region of Quebec.
A similar version of this article appeared in the June 2, 2021 edition of The Suburban.