The internment of Italian-Canadians is a dark stain on Canada's multicultural history. Though many are familiar with the injustices of the Second World War, few recognize the magnitude of the cultural intolerance that existed during those years. This is the story of one of those injustices.
After the First World War, fascism was on the rise in Europe. As the alliance between Mussolini and Adolf Hitler grew, so did the fear of their British adversaries. Consequently, Canadians felt the same suspicions and fears as their British partners. As suspicions grew, so did the intolerance of immigrants in Canada. Italians in Winnipeg became targets for suspicion and surveillance. In the years leading up to the Second World War, many Italian businesses were boycotted, Casa D'Italias were closed, meetings of groups such as the Sons of Italy were prohibited and church festivals outlawed. Italians became guilty by virtue of culture rather than crime.
On June 10, 1940, Canada declared war on Italy. Prime Minister Mackenzie King ordered the arrest and internment of any Italian who was suspected of sabotage or questionable activities. The prime minister used the War Measures Act of 1914 to suspend the civil liberties of Italian citizens.
As a result, between 600 and 700 Italians were arrested and detained in camps in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. Upon arrival, Italians were given a navy-blue uniform with a red stripe along the side and a red circle on the back. The purpose of this target was to give the guards a place to shoot should an individual try to escape. While in the camps, many internees had their bank accounts looted, businesses closed and families abandoned. They were given inadequate living conditions and forced to work for 25 cents a day.
Italians in Winnipeg faced a different kind of oppression from their non-Italian counterparts. Many Italians remained socially connected through Holy Rosary Parish and organizations such as Italian language school and the Roma Mutual Benevolent Society. However, with the onset of war, many organizations were forced to abandon any ties to Italy and pledge their allegiance to Canada. Despite their efforts, Italians faced restrictions on travel, a loss of relief payments and were often subject to intense scrutiny by the RCMP. This scrutiny required Italians to report to the RCMP on a monthly basis. These experiences varied from basic dialogue to extensive interrogations. The oppression continued as Italians were prohibited from speaking their language and meetings of groups such as the Roma Society were forbidden. Although Italians in Winnipeg were not taken to the internment camps, the prejudice and restrictions they faced during the war were discriminatory, restrictive and unjustified. Many Italians carried around the scars of this period for the rest of their lives.
Tommaso Romeo was one of these people. Born in Amato, Calabria, Tommaso came to Winnipeg in 1924. After an exhausting journey overseas, Tommaso arrived in Winnipeg and found work at the CN Rail shops. Despite his invitation to Canada, Tommaso often felt like a second-class citizen in the country he intended to make his home. He was loyal to his job on the railway and always completed tasks on time and without complaint. Once the war broke out, his struggles continued to grow. Any feelings of discrimination were now cemented in legislation and protocol. In addition to feelings of ostracism from the community, Tommaso was required to report to the RCMP every month. The purpose of these visits was to determine his whereabouts and monitor any extracurricular activities. His Italian heritage immediately made him an object of suspicion and scrutiny. Though this treatment was not warranted by any means, Tommaso continued to make a life for himself and his family in Winnipeg. He reported to the RCMP whenever asked, complied with any requests and persevered in spite of the many obstacles ahead of him. Tommaso's story is that of many Italians who fought to make Winnipeg their home. It is because of people like Tommaso that Italians in Winnipeg have developed the passion and resiliency that we see in the community today.
Long after the camps have closed and the prohibitions lifted, the Italian-Canadian community has re-established its identity. The initial stigma associated with being Italian began to subside as more waves of immigrants made their homes in local neighbourhoods. Eventually, being Italian became a source of pride rather than shame. In 1990, Brian Mulroney made an unofficial apology to the numerous Italians who were interned or mistreated during the war years. Fifteen years later, Massimo Pacetti's Bill C-302 was passed in the House of Commons to formally acknowledge and apologize for the injustices of the past.
Nearly 75 years after the internment commenced, Italians in Manitoba are experiencing a very different form of cultural distinction. Here in Winnipeg, we have the Sons of Italy, the Italian-Canadian League of Manitoba, the Dante Alighieri School and many dance groups, soccer teams and organizations to showcase the pride of Italians. The Centro Caboto is a thriving cultural centre that hosts many festivals and cultural gatherings on a regular basis. In 2009, the Italian-Canadian League of Manitoba put forth a motion to recognize the Italians in Manitoba who were adversely affected by the Canadian War Measures Act. To honour those resilient Italians, a monument and commemorative pathway have recently been erected at the Caboto Centre.
After decades of silent suffering and public resentment, Italian-Canadians can finally make peace with the injustices of the past. The pains of prior generations have not been forgotten. Now, as Italians continue rebuilding their community, they can make peace as their silence has been recognized and their perseverance honoured. However, the journey of Italians in Winnipeg is far from complete. The passion of the community and the strength of the culture have proven there will always be a story to tell.
Stephanie Zirino is a teacher at St. Mary's Academy. She attended the University of Manitoba, where she obtained undergraduate degrees in history and education. She serves on the board of directors at the Centro Caboto.