Fighting to Belong

During [my father’s camp] interview he sat down with a tribunal [and was told], "You can convince us that you're not a threat by joining the Canadian army and fighting for Canada." My dad said, "Fine, I'll join the army if you guarantee not to send me to Italy because I refuse to fire a rifle at any of my paesani, any of my friends." They said, "We can't guarantee you that." He said, "Good, send me [back] to the camp.

Leonard Tenisci, son of internee Fiorvante Tenisci, video interview, Columbus Centre Collection

That's when we joined up the 102nd and we were in the platoon...And they had weekly orders that come up posted and they had posted [I was] to receive a Lance Corporal's stripe on our jackets. Well when the CCO got a hold of that, he called me in his office and he went up and down me like you wouldn't believe...I found that moment with the [CCO's] office most embarassing, deragotory, bad name calling Italian and that he would never give me a Corporal stripe. He didn't like Italians. 

Joseph Brescia, enemy alien, video interview, Columbus Centre Collection

My Aunt has tried in every way at her disposal to have her husband released, but all her efforts have proven futile, thus I was prompted to write this message to you. Auntie Paonessa is an elderly woman…it makes me feel sick, to see them suffering from such want and privation. I cannot help feeling a little bitter about the whole thing…Sir, being a Canadian and being in the Canadian Army…I can readily understand the detention of anyone who may do harm to this country. But not my Uncle Joe, Sir, he is such a quiet, easy going person, who never spoke anything but of the highest of this country, Canada.

Walter Bula, nephew of internee Giuseppe Paonessa, letter to Mr. McPherson, March 19, 1941, Library and Archives Canada

Italian Canadians enlisted in the Canadian military following the declaration of war against Germany. Most were motivated to join because of a sense of duty to Canada. Others sought adventure, an income or simply joined because their friends had done so.

The decision by some Italian Canadians to join the army helped reduce the stigma of being perceived as enemy aliens. Still, anti-Italian hostility continued to exist within the Canadian military.

Male internees in their twenties were asked to prove their loyalty to Canada and regain their freedom by enlisting in the Canadian army. It is not known whether any internees did so. Some refused to join the army for fear of fighting against family and friends in Italy.


Divided Loyalties

Ironically, there were cases where enlisted Italian Canadians had fathers in internment camps. Internee Libero Sauro, for instance, had five sons serving in the war. Even enemy aliens joined the military. Thunder Bay’s Joseph Brescia was still reporting when he began his basic training.