[My thoughts -- ICEA Project Director]

Over seventy years have passed since Italian Canadians became the enemy. There have been academic publications and newspaper articles, conferences and commemorative events, lawsuits and a luncheon apology from a prime minister. However, the work needed to understand this historical event is still ongoing. The internment of about 600 Italian Canadians during World War II and the designation of another 31,000 as enemy aliens are tragic events that remain little known, even within the Italian Canadian community itself. This historical period does not feature prominently in the immigration story celebrated by Italian Canadians.

Why? There are no simple answers. Some explanation can be found in the silence of those who experienced these events; the incomplete archival record; the contentious debates on the validity of the government’s actions; and the very nature of the Italian Canadian community itself.

It is difficult to assess the impact on internees and enemy aliens because many have since passed away. The archival records are incomplete, with files redacted or destroyed by government officials in some cases. Over time, many families purged objects associated with the period: it was not necessary to keep reminders of a time when their loyalty to Canada was in question. As we look back, it is clear that we have only a fragmented glimpse of the internment period. What remains? The odd interviews and stories shared with families, the memories of aging adults who were then children, some letters and pictures, and the carved wooden “souvenirs” made by internees.

Although many internees who did speak of their experience noted that they were not mistreated or abused in camp, it is clear that they carried the experience like a wound which healed but left a permanent scar. After the war, most simply wanted to move on. They remained silent in order to do so.

Within this context, a massive wave of new immigrants arrived from war-torn Italy. Far outnumbering the pre-war community, these new Italian Canadians had a different World War II experience. Their stories centred on the challenges of life on the war front itself. But they, too, were focused on the future – determined to make a better life for their families. The result is that, for today’s community, what happened in Canada during World War II is not part of the majority's personal history.

Tossed into the mix was the sometimes academic, sometimes public debate on the government’s actions. Some believe that the Canadian government acted appropriately within the context of the times and that the treatment of Italian Canadians as a whole was a rational and justifiable response. After all, less than one per cent of the Italian Canadian community was interned, and some of the internees were clearly active fascists or fascist sympathizers. Furthermore, the Italian Canadian World War II experience did not compare to what Italians suffered elsewhere, such as in Australia; or to the suffering of other groups in Canada, most notably Japanese Canadians. Of course, it could not compare to the inconceivable inhumanity of the Nazi concentration camps, and the resulting Holocaust.

Did these arguments further marginalize those who lived the experience? Did they enforce the fear and resistance to speak? Maybe their experience wasn’t so bad – it was war, after all. Maybe some even deserved what they suffered…

The Italian Canadian community itself, with its many factions and groups, presents another challenge. The community is divided based on regionalism – along Italian boundaries and Canadian ones –conflicting views and competing interests. Consequently, the Italian Canadian community does not have a single national voice or unified representation. A great deal of valuable work was undertaken in the 1990s to address the internment issues, but it does not seem to have taken root. In general, the post-war members of the Italian Canadian community have not embraced this historical period as part of their history. A pervasive and genuine community debate and dialogue did not result; and as a consequence, neither did a strong community position from which to advocate.

Given this situation, how does a community centre based in Toronto begin to tell this story? By reaching out and seeking dialogue and debate. We rejected the so-called expert role in favour of accepting multiple voices and perspectives. We invited the community in.

We hope we succeeded. But, we know we have only just begun…

Lucy Di Pietro
Project Director


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My father Thomas Joseph Carbone, POW 311

"remember your parents fondly...he was Mary Carbones brother...my dad's (George) mother...never knew this happened...thanks for sharing..." - Doug Spadafore

My grandfather

My thoughts -- ICEA Researcher/Writer

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This subject raises many issues, among them: whether the Canadian government’s action was justified for the time; the need to protect the fine balance between individual rights and the common good; the role of memory in history; and the argument for financial compensation and a formal apology. Do you have an opinion on these issues? Does the subject raise other questions?

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