Playwright Lucia Frangione is a long-time Vancouverite and a first-generation Italian-Canadian with strong ties to the community that have informed her writing in plays such as Espresso. But even she did not know about this dark chapter in the community’s history. Neither did Greg Moro, despite close family connections to the events.
In the early hours of June 10, 1940, RCMP officers began rounding up 44 Italian-Canadian men in Vancouver. Mussolini had joined forces with Nazi Germany; Canada was at war with Italy. These men were declared enemy aliens and sent to an internment camp in Kananaskis, Alta.
More than 600 Italian Canadians were interned across the country, at camps in Petawawa, Ont., and Minto, N.B., as well. The British Columbia men – of which there are no survivors today – were held for up to three years; no charges were ever laid.
“I knew that they’d suffered racism but I didn’t know they were actually interned in PoW camps, that their rights were revoked,” says Frangione. “Imagine – I’m Italian and I didn’t know.”
The subject of Italian internment in Canada gets an airing this month with A Question of Loyalty, a project encompassing Frangione’s new play, Fresco, an exhibition and a book about the events. (Viewers of the Canadian TV miniseries Bomb Girls were also recently introduced to the Italian internment, with a plot line involving the Marco Moretti character.)
“It wasn’t spoken about very widely,” says Julia Murray, curator at the community museum Il Museo at the Italian Cultural Centre in east Vancouver, where the exhibition Beyond the Barbed Wire: Experiences of Italian Canadians in World War II opens this week, and also co-ordinator of the overall project, funded with $350,000 from Ottawa. “It was only as we started researching this that I realized what a significant event it was in the history of the community.”
It’s a fact that has been lost to time – and shame – unlike the Japanese-Canadian internment, so well-documented and so much a terrible cornerstone in that community’s history. There are significant differences: The Italian-Canadian internees were all men, detained because of alleged fascist links. Entire families were not forced out of their homes and into camps. With the exception of some Mussolini busts and the like, their property was not confiscated.
But the effects were profound, according to Ray Culos’s book Injustice Served: The Story of British Columbia’s Italian Enemy Aliens During World War II, being released this week. The men left their families in dire circumstances; some women couldn’t cope.
Then there was the unofficial impact on the entire community: the sting of prejudice, businesses boycotted, jobs lost.
A further 1,800 Italian B.C. residents – many of whom had arrived in Canada during Mussolini’s reign – were designated enemy aliens and forced to check in with the RCMP monthly. Among them was Luigi (Lou) Moro, a native of Italy, who was something of a lacrosse star in Trail, B.C., and who would go on to become a celebrated, hall-of-fame sports trainer and a decorated war hero: To avoid the humiliating monthly check-ins and – worse – the threat of internment, Moro joined the Canadian army.
“He said his biggest fear was that he would be marching through Italy and he would come face to face with his brother,” says his son, Greg Moro. Lou’s brother had not been allowed into Canada with the rest of his family because he had polio. Lou moved from the army to the navy.
There is more complicated history here: Greg Moro grew up in an East Vancouver house that, years later, while visiting a museum about the Japanese internment, he learned had been lost by an interned Japanese family. He also didn’t know, until told by Culos very recently, about the Italian interment, which had such a profound effect on his own family.
“I never knew Italians were interned. I didn’t have a clue,” says Moro, a 58-year old retired teacher. “If it wasn’t for this project, I wouldn’t know any of this.”
(Other internees included German nationals, some Communist Party members and others deemed dangerous enemies – including Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde, a vocal opponent to conscription.)
Frangione, 42, thinks the Italian concept of la bella figura – literally, “the beautiful face,” in the sense of a certain pride and hiding any suffering behind the way one presents oneself – is part of the reason these things were not spoken about. Also, the shame.
“There’s been a really divided response to this whole project. Some people are very excited.... But some don’t want to talk about it at all. Because what does your mother do to make some money when the father is gone and she has six children to feed? Sometimes it’s not a story you ever, ever want to tell or remember.”
Frangione tells the story through FRESCO, produced by Vancouver’s BellaLuna Productions and directed by James Fagan Tait. In the play, a woman and her brother inherit the family home – a teardown in Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighbourhood. Vancouver real estate being what it is, it’s probably worth $800,000. The woman, an artist, can’t afford to buy her brother out, but she doesn’t want the house destroyed either.
“She knows there’s so much story there,” says Frangione. “The ghosts come out of the house and battle it out with her and try to solve her dilemma for her.”
Frangione’s own grandfather was conscripted to fight for Mussolini; he emigrated to Canada with his wife and children in 1956. He’s no longer alive, but his wife, Frangione’s grandmother, still lives in the family home in Ottawa and hopes it's never sold.This was a major inspiration for Frangione's play.
“It’s my love letter,” she says, “to my Nonna and Nonno.”
The exhibition Beyond the Barbed Wire opens Tuesday at Vancouver’s Italian Cultural Centre. FRESCO is at the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts in Burnaby March 21-24 and at The Cultch in Vancouver March 28-31.