Tracing the forgotten history of Italian-Canadian internment camps
While most Canadians are familiar with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, it’s a lesser-known fact that many Italians also suffered a similar fate.
Following its declaration of war on Italy, on June 10, 1940, the Canadian government designated Italian nationals—and Italian Canadians naturalized after 1922—as enemy aliens. Out of roughly 4,500 Italians in Vancouver, 1,800 (40 percent) fell into this enemy alien status, and were forced to file monthly reports to the RCMP as to both their activities and whereabouts.
Although many Italian Canadians managed to carry on a somewhat normal life under the designation of “enemy alien”, existence became much more difficult for others. With habeas corpus suspended under the War Measures Act, over 600 Italians (44 from the Vancouver area alone) were rounded up without charges and interned in camps across the country.
Most frequently, those interned were the heads of their households—the breadwinners—and the only thing keeping their families from poverty. And although none of them were ever charged with any criminal activity, some were kept imprisoned for up to two years.
Now, seven decades later, Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre is telling the story of this forgotten time in Canadian history with a three-part multimedia presentation called A Question of Loyalty.
One part of the commemoration is a book, written by local Italian-Canadian historian Ray Culos, called Injustice Served. In it, Culos fleshes out the history of the internments, and the backgrounds of those affected.
There’s also a new play, Fresco, written by Lucia Frangione and produced by BellaLuna Productions, detailing the impact of the internments upon a local family. (It's being performed from March 21 to 24 at Burnaby’s Shadbolt Centre, and from March 28 to 31 at the Cultch).
Finally, there’s a museum exhibit entitled Beyond the Barbed Wire: Experiences of Italian Canadians in World War Two, running from March 6 to August 31st at the Italian Cultural Centre. It will feature photos, memorabilia from affected families, and other artifacts.
Along with a locally produced bust of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini by Charles Marega (the sculptor who created the Lions Gate Bridge lions), there are a number of objects, which bring a great deal of emotion and poignancy to the exhibit. For example, there’s a sobering prisoner-of-war camp uniform worn by an internee in the Kananaskis (Alberta) internment camp.
“It’s a blue denim uniform,” says Julia Murray, curator of Il Museo at the Italian Cultural Centre, “but it has red piping and a very striking and slightly disturbing red circle on the back, like a target.”
There are also some samples of the crafts made by internees to fill their time. “The piece that’s perhaps the most interesting,” Murray explains, “is an oval wooden tablet—a pyrogrpahy piece, where you burn into the wood—and it’s actually a landscape of the camp, so you see the mountain behind and the actual campsite depicted there.”
As to the makeup of the local internees, they were hardly spies or saboteurs. “We think that all of the people that were interned from Vancouver had been members of a certain club, the Circolo Giulio Giordani,” says Murray. “There were a small number of clubs that were directly influenced by the Italian consulate, where the consulate encouraged the spread of fascist ideas, and this club was one of them.”
In most cases, there was likely a good deal of naiveté about the aims of the club, as the organization appeared purely social on the surface: picnics, outings, and business contacts.
“However,” Murray continues, “to be a member of this club, you did actually have to sign something that said you were loyal to Mussolini.” It was something most Italians probably didn’t give much thought to in the prewar years. Once war broke out, however, those who signed the pledge suddenly found themselves under deep suspicion—and in deep trouble.
It’s an important part of Vancouver history, and an important cautionary tale in this modern era of legislation like the U.S. Patriot Act and Bill C-30, which aims to give far greater surveillance power to police.