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 earlier this month, prepping Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to announce that Canada would formally apologize for doing so.
It is a remarkable claim, suggesting a massive violation of human rights. But if Italian Canadians were interned simply because of their heritage, as Iacono informs us, surely tens of thousands must have been thrown in camps — far more than the 12,000 Japanese Canadians exiled from their homes on the West Coast and interned in camps during the war (in addition to thousands more expelled and forced to work on farms). There were, after all, more 100,000 ethnic Italians living in Canada in 1940.
And yet, if we take away 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 (University of Toronto Press, 2000) is a comprehensive take-down of the claim that Canada waged a “war against ethnicity” when interning Italian Canadians.
Instead, we learn Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s diplomats in Canada aggressively promoted fascism among Italian Canadians and achieved 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.”
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 blanket assumptions about the entire community.
Liberati compiled his own biographical database of the 500 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, meaning the number of active fascists among the internees was likely higher.
“[M]any who later professed their loyalty to Canada had in fact been fervent Fascists and had maintained their positions even during their internment,” 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, Liberati 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.”
It’s that last detail that underscores the greatest damage done by Trudeau’s planned apology. The claim that Italian Canadians were interned because of their ethnicity suggests they were representative of the entire Italian-Canadian community. They were not. And pretending otherwise erases the history of Italian Canadians who fought fascism rather than cheered its murderous advance.
Take, for example, Charles Bartolotta. During the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939, when Mussolini sent tens of thousands of conscripts to fight and die alongside the Nazi Condor Legion in defence of fascism in Spain, Bartolotta left his home in Hamilton, ON, and went to Spain to fight it. A member of the International Brigades, Bartolotta was killed in action in September 1938.
Or consider Frank Misericordia, a father of four who was working at the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottawa during the Second World War when he was recruited into 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 took their toll, as one of his superiors noted in a 1944 memo, declassified in 2013 and housed at Britain’s National Archives:
“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 Second World 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. Trudeau is instead subsuming their heroism in a false narrative of ethnic victimhood.