Most people are familiar with the internment Canadians of Japanese descent during the Second World War but not many know that Italian Canadians were also jailed or sent to internment camps. My family knows this first hand because of the experiences my mother's family had during the Second World War - which I explain further on in this post.
Hickman and Smith Cavalluzzo have written an informative and visually appealing book about the internment of Italian Canadians, incorporating personal photographs and testimonies, newspaper articles, historical photographs and many other primary sources.
It then goes on to describe what life was like for Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. At this time, Canada was very much a homogenous country made up of predominantly British and northern European peoples. Canadian society at this time was not very accepting of the Italian immigrants who were so different culturally. Nevertheless, the Italian immigrants were hard-working, often employed in construction, farming, and mining. They also formed small communities within major cities such as Toronto, Halifax, Montreal and Hamilton. These communities were called "Little Italy" and served to help Italians preserve their warm, vibrant culture.
The authors describe what happened in 1922 when Benito Mussolini seized power in Italy and the country became a one party state - as fascist dictatorship. Mussolini was loved by many Italians because he brought law and order to a deeply divided and impoverished country where rural villages were often ruled by the Mafia.
During the 1930's Italy invaded Ethiopia and adopted many anti-Jewish laws. Adolf Hitler had watched and admired Mussolini for years. When Germany began its acts of aggression against Poland, Austria and eventually invaded France, Italy did nothing. To the dismay of many Italian Canadians, Italy eventually aligned itself with Germany. Despite the fact that many Italian Canadians pledged allegiance to Britain and Canada, the Canadian government became suspicious of the Italian communities in Canada.
In 1940, after Italy's declaration of war on Canada, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King ordered that all Canadians of Italian origin "whose activities have given ground for the belief or reasonable suspicion that they might in time of war endanger the safety of the state or engage in activities prejudicial to the prosecution of the war..." were to be interned.
Many Italian Canadians were treated terribly during the war. Families lost their sole breadwinner when the husband and father was taken away to a prisoner of war camp. Family members often lost jobs. Hickman and Cavalluzzo do an excellent job through the use of photographs, artwork, letters and interviews of capturing what it must have been like for these families. Many men felt they were sent to the camps simply out of spite and racial hatred, due to false accusations.
This book also looks at the effects the Italian internment had on the Italian community, and on individuals after the war was over. Many Italians lost their business, their friends, and were never offered any compensation by the Canadian government.
Based on the experience of my own family I know that Italian Canadians were treated badly during the late 1930s and 1940's. My mother told me how her older sisters dyed their beautiful black hair blonde or red, changed their last names so that they could get work and how her parents refused to speak Italian in public.
If Italian Canadian Internment in the Second World War is missing anything it is the forgotten contribution of one Italian Canadian -- Quinto Martini, who happens to be my uncle and who was the first Italian Canadian elected to Parliament. My Uncle Quinto was involved in organizing textile labour unions in the city of Hamilton before the war. Quinto was arrested and interned during the Second World War mainly because he was Italian and also likely due to his labour activism. This despite having signed a declaration stating that he was faithful to the British government.
Quinto Martini was POW #720 and his record can be found here
in a list of internees.Nicholas Zaffiro, who was interviewed for this
book knew Quinto Martini through the Sons of Italy. Quinto Martini
passed away in 1975. Quinto's internment caused considerable hardship for my Aunt Lucy who was expecting her third child that fall. With no money to support herself, a newborn and two small children, my Aunt Lucy was forced to go on welfare.
Following the Second World War, Quinto joined the Progressive Conservative Party and after a first unsuccessful bid, was elected to the House of Parliament, in 1957, representing Hamilton East, thus making him the first Italian Canadian elected to the House -- something I consider important enough to have merited his inclusion in Hickman and Cavalluzzo's book. During his second term, he served as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Transport.
For further reading:
Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of World War II.