Michael Petrou is editor-in-chief of Open Canada and an adjunct professor of history at Carleton University.
Canada interned hundreds of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War “for the simple reason that they were of Italian heritage,” Liberal MP Angelo Iacono told the House of Commons on April 14, paving the way for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce that Canada would formally apologize for doing so in May.
Mr. Iacono’s claim is remarkable. It suggests that Canada perpetrated a massive violation of human rights among members of that ethnic community. But if they really were interned simply because of their heritage, surely tens of thousands must have been thrown into camps – far more than the 12,000 Japanese-Canadians pulled from their homes on the West Coast and interned during the war (in addition to the thousands more forced to work on farms). There were, after all, more than 100,000 Italian-Canadians in 1940.
And yet, if we don’t count the 100 or so Italian sailors in Canada who were caught off guard by Italy’s declaration of war in 1940, the number of internees totals about 500, less than 0.5 per cent of the Italian-Canadian population. There must have been something special about them. What, one wonders, could it have been?
Fortunately, historians have studied this topic in some detail, so we have answers. Enemies Within: Italian and Other Internees in Canada and Abroad, edited by Franca Iacovetta, Roberto Perin and Angelo Principe is a comprehensive takedown of the claim that Canada waged a “war against ethnicity” when interning Italian-Canadians.
Instead, the book finds that Benito Mussolini’s diplomats in Canada aggressively promoted fascism among Italian-Canadians and met with some success – although only a small minority of Italian-Canadians were involved in fascist organizations. Such people caught the attention of the RCMP, which compiled what historian Luigi Bruti Liberati describes in the book as “a detailed picture of fascist activity in Canada, from the largest urban centres to the most distant mining camps.”
Mr. Liberati notes there are valid reasons to question the accuracy of the RCMP’s conclusions. But they were based on evidence, however imperfect, rather than on blanket assumptions about the entire community.
Mr. Liberati compiled his own biographical database of the internees. He found police had detailed dossiers indicating involvement in fascist organizations for at least 100 of them. Even 500, however, represented a small fraction of the 3,500 Italian-Canadians known to have been members of local fascist groups.
“[M]any who later professed their loyalty to Canada had in fact been fervent Fascists and had maintained their positions even during their internment,” Mr. Liberati writes.
Were some wrongly accused? Certainly, and the harm from that injustice persisted. But Ottawa’s actions were not comparable to those of a police state, he concludes. “This judgment seems to ignore the fact that fascism was well founded in Canada and that a certain number of Italian Canadians had supported it actively, not hesitating on occasion to resort to acts of violence against co-nationals and anti-fascists.”
That last detail underscores the greatest damage done by Mr. Trudeau’s planned apology. To claim that Italian-Canadians were interned because of their ethnicity suggests that they were representative of the entire Italian-Canadian community. They were not. Suggesting otherwise erases the history of Italian-Canadians who fought fascism, at home and abroad, instead of cheering its murderous advance.
Take, for example, Charles Bartolotta. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when Mussolini sent soldiers to fight and die alongside the Nazis’ Condor Legion, Bartolotta left his home in Hamilton, Ont., to fight the fascists in that prelude to the Second World War. A member of the International Brigades, he was killed in action in September, 1938.
Or consider Frank Misericordia, a father of four who was working at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier hotel during the Second World War when he was recruited by the Special Operations Executive to infiltrate German-occupied Italy and liaise with anti-fascist partisans there. Five attempts to secretly land him on the Italian coast were unsuccessful, but they took their toll, as one of his superiors noted in a 1944 memo: “In this case a pension from S.O.E. would hardly be any recompense, and I recommend that his services and the aggravation of his illness through the many courageous attempts he made to land in enemy territory be recognized by a one-time bonus when he leaves the country.”
Consider, finally, all those Italian-Canadians who joined the Canadian Armed Forces during the war. They recognized fascism for what it was and stood against it. It’s their story, and Bartolotta’s and Misericordia’s, that should be celebrated. Mr. Trudeau has instead chosen to subsume their heroism in a false, overly broad narrative of ethnic victimhood.
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