[My grandfather]

I am the grandson of Luigi Gialleonardo (#P985). My last name is Leonardo, and I will explain in this brief how this shortened version came about. I will also illustrate the nonsense of war when panic besets a nation.

Your story about my grandfather is entirely correct, and I am pleased to discover the website, and the good work you have done. But I would like to add to the record the difficulty the internment caused our family as well, so let me fill you in. Every Italian – Canadian family faced the same discrimination and many changed their names to find employment. The Gialleonardo family changed their name with a pencil eraser on their identity cards. In those days you could do this with the unsophisticated cards. They changed their name to Leonard and then found jobs. In the 1960s as they sought out government pensions and medicare, there was an identity problem. Fortunately, Liberal Party fixer Sam Capozzi, my Uncle Charlie’s nightclub partner, was able to sort out the government.

While my grandfather was considered an enemy of his country, the government never went after two sons. That’s because in 1939 my Uncle Louis volunteered for the Navy. He ended up on a corvette in the Atlantic Ocean escorting convoys. At the same time, my father, Joseph, volunteered for the Canadian Army and was with Royal Canadian Mechanical Engineers. Before he departed for Europe, he survived an ammunition truck explosion in Montreal. Overseas he was hit with shrapnel many times. In Scotland, he broke both ankles in a parachute jump. But his biggest contribution to Canada was when he landed on Normandy Beach and lived to come home. While he survived the war, his best friend who had been with him since the landing, died on the last day. Recently I learned that on his return from the war, for three years he slept under his bed with his new bride above. Sleeping on top of a bed in a war put you at risk for shrapnel and death.

There is more, but even on the eve of an unsuccessful heart operation, he was unable to describe to me the horror — the horror of war. He opened his mouth, but the words failed to come out. (As an aside, I cry with abandon every Remembrance Day for him, and those who died in action. You now understand why.) Whenever, the family was called “Enemy Wops”, they proudly pulled rank and talked about their family fighting on front line. It quickly dampened the criticism.

After the war, a source of family pride was a visit to their Ville-Emard house by Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde. He shared a hut in Petawawa with the Italians for being outspoken on conscription – a punishable offence. While he visited the Gialleonardo family, I’ve heard he made stops at others, and I am sure he did. And he will always be loved by the Montreal Italian community for many reasons. Before the war, he used his offices to donate the land for Casa d’Italia.

My grandfather died at the age of 65, just hours after he was pinned to a brick wall by an out-of-control truck — a brake failure. He was on his way to the CNR doctor for a check-up before he could qualify for his pension.

It’s easy to understand how this internment happened. The war was going poorly for the Allies with loss upon loss. With France lost to the Nazis and the Dunkirk evacuation still fresh in the news, the government reaction to Italy declaring war needed some kind of action. As with all governments, this roundup was more about show, of doing something, and being seen to do something. While it served the purposes of Mackenzie King, it unfairly impacted many loyal Canadians of Italian decent.

Today, I am uncomfortable about those who want to take this sad historical footnote and use it for political gain or leverage for guilt money from the government. In 2010, I attended the Montreal Casa d’Italia dinner remembering the internment, where then Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff spoke. His speech fell flat for me when he tried to rile the community that the terrible, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, failed to apologize for the internment of the Italians. If I had been given a chance to speak, I could have recounted that it was a Liberal prime minister, Mackenzie King, who allowed this internment to happen and the apology should be a Liberal one. Mr. Ignatieff received polite applause for the wrong speech.

In my estimation, there are groups in Canada who for centuries have painted themselves as victims, and the Italians could have been one of them. Instead, to the credit of Italian-Canadians, they’ve avoided this victim mantle. Today, they successfully live in the present, without dragging their past with them, as they move forward to a bright future. This makes me proud to be a second-generation Italian-Canadian.

Written by: David Leonardo


No comments received

Comment on this topic

Please enter the word you see in the image below:


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

Start a Conversation

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?

Start now

Help us tell the story

With your help, we hope to develop the most comprehensive archival database on this important period in Canadian World War II history. Here you can share your family’s story, add information on an internee, post photographs or videos, or find out about donating an object.

Share with us