Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak tonight to Bill C-302, An Act to recognize the injustice that was done to persons of Italian origin through their “enemy alien” designation and internment during the Second World War, and to provide for restitution and promote education on Italian-Canadian history.
The New Democrats are pleased to support this bill and to help move this through Parliament.
On September 3, 1939, the Government of Canada issued regulations that empowered the minister of justice with the full authority to act as he chose to destroy any sign of subdivision during a time of war. This allowed him to detain, without trial, any person and created a class of aliens who were not foreign nationals but were Canadian citizens.
On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on Canada. That very evening Prime Minister Mackenzie King announced that he had ordered the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians identified by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as enemy aliens. That order was applied to Italians who became British subjects after September 1, 1922.
The government also established a judicial mechanism to administer internment proceedings. It passed an order in council which ensured the registration of all people of Italian birth. Furthermore the office of the custodian of alien property was authorized to confiscate the property of enemy aliens.
Like the internment of Japanese Canadians, Ukrainian Canadians, German Canadians and others, the forced registration and internment of Italian Canadians is a sad chapter in our history.
The RCMP rounded up approximately 700 Italian Canadians, often separating fathers from their children and husbands from their families. Seventeen thousand people were designated as enemy aliens in our country for no reason other than their birth.
There was no reason to suspect that those interned posed any threat to Canada or Canadians. In fact, many of them were first world war veterans who had fought for their adopted country. It was not uncommon for instance for men in uniform to come back home only to find that family members were interned.
The round-up of Italian Canadians was virtually completed by October 1940. Most of them were sent to Camp Petawawa situated in the Ottawa River Valley. It is difficult to establish exactly how many Italian Canadians were interned, although estimates range from 600 to 700.
Although the majority of those interned were from the areas of highest concentrations of Italian Canadians at that time, Montreal, Toronto and other centres in Ontario, there were also documented cases from western Canada.
Internment was brutal. Families could not visit or write interned people for the first year. Italian Canadians were penalized financially. A spontaneous boycott of Italian businesses whipped up by the prejudices of the times took place throughout Canada and provincial governments ordered municipalities to terminate relief payments to non-naturalized Italians. Travel restrictions were imposed on Italian Canadians. Their ability to occupy certain jobs was prohibited. Italian Canadians were forced to report on a monthly basis to the RCMP. Activities such as the teaching of the Italian language and meetings of the Roma Society were declared illegal.
Internment was for up to three years and the average interned person was held for almost sixteen months. To put some feelings to this, these are not just numbers. The people interned were doctors, lawyers, carpenters, bakers, contractors and priests. For families, of course, it was just as bad if not worse. These actions added to the psychological scars inflicted by constant harassment and ridicule from neighbours and co-workers and the fearmongering being perpetrated by elected officials.
The federal government went further. It froze bank accounts. It forced Italian Canadian families to subsist on $12 a month. Many Italian families were forced to sell homes, businesses and valuable assets.
Despite this, a number of Italian Canadians enlisted in the Canadian armed forces, some in an attempt to remove the stigma associated with the term “illegal alien”. Not one person was ever charged with sabotage or any act of disloyalty. We must acknowledge and make amends for that black chapter in Canadian history.
In 1990 the National Congress of Italian-Canadians outlined these injustices in a brief sent to then Prime Minister Mulroney. It wanted the injustice acknowledged, compensation paid and an apology.
Various steps have been taken to acknowledge and make amends for this disgraceful treatment. Former Prime Minister Mulroney did indeed apologize in 1990. He spoke about reparations. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin also promised reparations. Sadly, many of these commitments were simply empty promises. Despite these words, money has never really flown.
Money was announced with great fanfare and media attention, but successive governments did not think it was worthwhile to dedicate the time and energy to follow up on honouring their pledges and ensuring that Italian Canadians could access these funds.
In June 2008, just prior to the election I might add, the minister of Canadian heritage announced $5 million through a community historical recognition program that was specifically targeted to the Italian community for monuments, plaques, and community recognition projects around this issue.
I have spoken to members in the Italian Canadian community and to the National Congress of Italian-Canadians. Many did not even know about this fund; even fewer have applied for access to it. I cannot locate anybody who has received $1 from this fund, despite the fact that it was announced.
New Democrats support the bill because it seeks to raise awareness, educate our young people, and ensure that we never forget the terrible steps that we took in the name of national security. We must remember our actions during times of war because we face similar issues today.
It is not very long ago that we saw the actions of former President George Bush in the United States, in fact, actions that were copied by the previous Conservative and Liberal governments. We are well advised to guard our civil liberties today and in times of war or apprehended insurrection, because those are the times when our civil liberties are at risk.
These Italian victims would want this and their descendants today want this. We have a new term today for what happened in 1940, it is called racial profiling. People were rounded up simply because of their ethnicity. There is a lesson in that, when racial profiling is going on in 2009 in this country. We had better be vigilant to make sure that we stop it here today.
I would like to mention a few people who have done a great amount of work in this area. Mr. Elio Quattrocchi is a tireless and respected member of the Italian Canadian community in Vancouver. I want to speak about the people who work at Casa Serena, a home for seniors who come together in culture and recreation. I want to mention the thriving businesses on Commercial Drive, run by the same Italian entrepreneurs who were rounded up in 1940. I would like to mention the tireless efforts of the National Congress of Italian-Canadians.
There are other people, too. I would like to mention Mr. Victor Wong from the Chinese Canadian National Council, who has fought for redress and is still fighting for redress for full and adequate compensation for the families of Chinese head tax payers.
I was not in the last Parliament, but I understand the power of apology, redress and acknowledgment. I am told that during the residential schools apology, this was one of the most moving moments ever felt by members of Parliament.
The New Democrats and the CCF have stood alone in this country over the decades against internment and the War Measures Act and in favour of civil liberties. We New Democrats will do so again today and are proud to do it. We will stand and support this bill to ensure that Italian Canadians--