The Forgotten Prisoners

Earlier this year I was engaged in a conversation about history regarding the Italian community and its extraordinary contribution to the North American experience. During the course of the discussion I casually alluded to a period (taking for granted that people would know about this) in Canadian history when Japanese, German and Italian Canadians were interned in military camps and branded as enemy aliens during World War II. One admitted that he knew of the Japanese experience, was not surprised of the German one but clueless that the Italians were also targeted. Soon after, I could not help but be disappointed that some Canadians of Italian heritage are still not informed about this episode in Canadian history. Indeed, North American history.

In fact, it did not just happen here in North America. It also took place in Great Britain (including Scotland) and Australia. In Britain, under Winston Churchill's fears of a "fifth column." Of enemy nationals, many Italians (about 200 in all) were arrested and sent to camps on the Isle of Man. Some were transported to Australia and others found their way to Canada (as was the case with 2 500 internees who came here on the Duchess of York) about 600 of them spent three years in a POW camp on St.Helene's Island under the Jacques Cartier bridge in Montreal. Many were sent to Petawawa, Ontario and New Brunswick, and subsequently treated as prisoners of war.

Italians were subjected to strict curfews, and in some places in the United States travel was restricted to a five-mile radius from home. Regardless of the geographic location, lives and families were uprooted, and some even ended in tragedy. For example, when the Arandora Star was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland at the cost of 682 lives, it was carrying 1 571 German and Italian internees.

Among those who perished was Silvestro d'Ambrosio,a confectioner and restaurateur from Hamilton who had lived in Britain for 42 years. Ironically, he had a son in the Canadian army. It was not uncommon, for instance, for men in uniform to come back home, only to find family members were interned.

As far as more irony goes, not only did Italian immigrants form the largest ethnic group at the time, they also represented the largets ethnic group in the U.S. armed forces. In World War I, Italians represented close to 10% (approximately 300 000) of war casualties even though they made up only 4% of the U.S. population. The figure remained 10% of the might of the American forces (1.5 million) in World War II, according to Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller.

In fairness to both the Canadian and American governments, it was time of war and there were, to be frank, fascist organizations operating within our borders. According to Angelo Principe, author of 'The Darkest Side of the Fascist Years', Italian-Canadians fascist newspapers served as mouthpieces for the Italian consulates, spreading fascist propaganda throughout Italian-Canadian communities. His study was based on detailing the histories of the three largest Italian-Canadian newspapers at the time; L'Italian in Montreal, Il Bollentino in Toronto and L'Eco in Vancouver. The names of some of these organizations also made this abundantly clear, including the Italian Fascio Abroad and the National Organization for the Repression of the Anti-Fascists here in Montreal who were located at La Casa D'Italia (although only about 6% of men in these organizations were actual Fascist party members).

This is not to condone most of the exaggerated actions the goverment took, but this should be kept in mind nonetheless. It can also serve as a lesson on today's war on terrorism. In times of war, the delicate line between national security and individual civil liberty is a balance difficult to strike for governments.

In 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did issue an apology without compensation on behalf of Canadians. The U.S. Congress, for its part, has yet to do so. They are, however, slowly emerging from a 50-year self-imposed government silence. A Congressional bill known as the Wartime Violations of Italian American Civil Liberties Act seek acknowledgement of wartime discrimination against Italian Americans.

The humilation and anger suffered by some persisted well after the war, which in part explains the code of silence that prevailed among some Italians who simply wanted to forget this chapter in the community's history. Indeed, they found it pointless to try and seek compensation and justice from what was perceived to be a racist Liberal Party, the governing party under Mackenzie Lyon King at the time. This perception was further solidified when Liberal party members of Italian descent were interned.

There exists little accessible literature and information during this period. It is hoped that articles such as these may help to raise awareness about this forgotten era. Part of our collective responsibility in the present is to transmit, for posterity, oral history. This helps to define not only the Italian community, but Italians as Canadians as well. I often lament about Canada's inability to bring its past to life. We are a society that seems to suffer a collective amnesia about our history, and this partly explains the failure of branding our culture abroad.

I have always found it curious that national broadcasting organizations such as the CBC speak only of Japanese internment camps. I do not have any idea why this is so. Perhaps blogs like this one can help to rectify this omission. Maybe then people will not be so surprised when they are told of this period in Canadian history over drinks at a cocktail party.


-In all, approximately 1 521 Italian aliens were arrested by the FBI for curfew violations in the U.S. In Canada, the government, under the War measures act, temporarily detained 2 400 Italian Canadians. Of which, approximately 500-700 were interned. In the U.S., 600 000 Italians and in Canada, 113 000 Italians were branded enemy aliens. Most who were rounded up were in the process of becoming citizens and were not naturalized. American and Canadian citizens, however, were nonetheless also rounded up, interrogated and interned. Among the most famous people who were deemed enemy aliens included Metropolitain Opera basso Enzo Pinza and New York Yankee slugger Joe DiMaggio's fisherman father. In Canada, the most famous internee was Mario Duliani, a Montreal-based journalist.


Una Storia Segreta
U.S Department of War
Ottawa Archives
York University
Sun Media
Scotsatwar.org/Captain Archibald Ramsey
'The OSS in Italy', Max Corvo
'The Darkest Side of the Fascist Years.' The Italian Canadian Press: 1920-1942, Aneglo Principe
'Barbed Wire and Mandolins', Sam Grana

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