OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized on Thursday for the internment of Canadians of Italian descent during the Second World War, saying the community has carried the weight of the unjust policy for generations.
He told the House of Commons that internees were business owners, workers, and doctors, but they were taken away to internment camps scattered across Canada.
"Once they arrived at a camp, there was no length of sentence," he said. "Sometimes, the internment lasted a few months. Sometimes, it lasted years. But the impacts — those lasted a lifetime."
Trudeau said the country didn't have to declare war on Canadians of Italian heritage when it declared war on Italy's fascist regime in June 1940.
"To stand up to the Italian regime that had sided with Nazi Germany, that was right," he said.
"But to scapegoat law-abiding Italian Canadians, that was wrong."
He said 31,000 Italian Canadians were labelled "enemy aliens," and then fingerprinted, scrutinized and forced to report to local registrars once a month.
Trudeau said more than 600 men were arrested and sent to internment camps, and four women were detained and sent to jail without formal charges, ability to defend themselves in a fair trial or a chance to present or rebut evidence.
"To the tens of thousands of innocent Italian Canadians who were labelled enemy aliens, to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt and to their community — a community that has given so much to our country — we are sorry," he said.
Trudeau said those who were interned did not turn their backs to Canada, and instead, they chose to contribute to building it, proving they loved the country they had chosen as their home.
"Every thriving business these men and women rebuilt or local charity they started was a testament to their commitment to Canada," he said.
"What better way to show that the injustice done to them had been a mistake?"
Trudeau delivered a few lines in Italian and wove personal stories into his speech, including that of Giuseppe Visocchi, who he said was apprehended while attending a wedding in Montreal in 1940.
"The officers who took him away told his family that they just had to speak with him, but he would be able to come right back," the prime minister said.
"He didn't. Within weeks, he was at a prisoner of war camp in Petawawa, wearing a uniform marking him as an internee, with a target on the back and the number 770.”
In addition to Petawawa, Ont., camps were also located in Kingston, Ont., Kananaskis, Alta., and Fredericton, N.B., Trudeau said.
Trudeau said after Visocchi came back to his family two years later, he worked hard to build a better life, bought a house and taught his children to be upstanding citizens.
"Courage, resilience, an unshakable belief that we are stronger together. That was the path he chose. And it's a path we must continue to choose today," he said.
Opposition parties also lent their voices to the apology, with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole sharing several stories of Canadians who were impacted.
O'Toole said former prime minister Brian Mulroney apologized for the internment in 1990 at an event hosted by the Italian Canadian community and attended by several surviving victims at the time.
He said both apologies acknowledge the pain caused to thousands of Canadians by their own government.
"For over a century, Italian Canadians have indeed given their big hearts, their tireless energy and their labour to Canada," he said.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said the apology will give Italian Canadian families the justice they deserve, but he called on the government to also provide compensation.
He said the federal government froze Italian Canadians' bank accounts, many had to sell their homes and women had to find work to become breadwinners.
"Restitution can only be accomplished with compensation for Italian Canadian families that were impacted, that Canada had wronged," he said.
Some experts, including Roberto Perin, a professor emeritus of history at York University, have expressed concern that the apology could absolve actual fascists.
He said the prime minister shouldn’t have delivered a "blanket apology,” as there were a number of fascist sympathizers among those who were interned.
"Some of these people had collaborated with the Italian consular officials that represented the Italian government at the time," he said.
"These officials were active propagandists for fascism and for Italy's foreign policy, and some of these people wrote articles, gave speeches in support of the regime."
However, he said designating people as "enemy aliens" who had to report regularly to the RCMP was a "draconian measure" and included his father and maternal grandparents. The government should apologize for that act, he said.
Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella, whose grandfather was interned, has said Italian Canadians had little choice but to do business through the consulates at the time.
"People had to be sympathetic with the consulate or at least appear to be, because otherwise they're not going to get anything done," she said last week.
Bloc Québécois MP Marie-Helene Gaudreau told the House that some internees were sympathetic to Benito Mussolini’s regime, which used the diaspora to further its own interests.
"But many of the Italian Canadians internees had no connection to Mussolini's regime. Their internment was discriminatory and unfounded."
Gaudreau also highlighted the plight of Italian Canadian women, who she said were left alone with several children, no income and no assistance.
"Children died of malnutrition in the complete indifference of the authorities," she said.
Green MP Elizabeth May said Mulroney's apology was insufficient because it was not delivered in the House of Commons and thanked Trudeau for giving the expression of regret the "gravitas" it deserved.
May also rejected the notion from some historians that Canada should not apologize "too fully."
She said that even if some of those who were interned were part of fascist organizations, they were detained without due process and that was wrong.
"Most of the people arrested, from the historical records that I can find, had nothing whatsoever to do with any political movement and were loyal Canadians.
"So let the apology be full."
This report was first published by The Canadian Press on May 27, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press