moved that 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, be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to present my private member's bill, 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 historical context of this bill is broad and complex, but I will try nevertheless to explain briefly, despite the little time I have, the importance of passing this bill.
Needless to say with a surname like Pacetti and a first name like Massimo, my Italian origins are no secret.
This bill is not just about Italians; it is about making a wrong into a right for all Canadians. The purpose of this bill is to demonstrate that Canada's history is not much different from one era to another, including the stories of one immigrant group versus another.
Canada was and continues to be the promise of a land that offers opportunity, where the principles of peace, order and good government triumph over the chaos of war, corruption and poverty. Ours is a country that offers hope, freedom, prosperity, or simply a better life to thousands of people who just need to be given a fair chance to succeed.
Without history we have no future, and to ignore our history is even worse in that we deny our existence.
My bill, this bill, claims, simply, recognition of the injustices committed in the 1940s and the restoration of justice.
On June 10, 1940 Italy declared war on the free world. Though it was painful for some Italian Canadians to think of Italy as the enemy because of the family they left behind, their loyalty was to Canada, but to the Government of Canada this did not matter. Italian Canadians were still designated as enemy aliens in spite of the fact that a year earlier a report by Norman Robertson to justice minister Ernest Lapointe in 1939, the year before the internment of Italian Canadians commenced, made several recommendations against internment claiming that a large majority of Italian Canadians were not disloyal to this country. Robertson felt that it would not be in the public interest to recommend their immediate arrest at the outbreak of an eventual war between Canada and Italy and that any arrest on the grounds of disloyalty must be based on evidence and must be corroborated with proof that the individual in question was likely to act in a manner prejudicial to public safety. However, it has become clear over the years that individuals were in fact arrested on speculation alone.
What happened next was that the prime minister of the day, W. L. Mackenzie King, invoked the War Measures Act and took to the airwaves to issue the following statement: “The Minister of Justice has authorized the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to take steps to intern all residents 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”.
It was with these words that the nightmare began for many. Imagine, Canadians, some of Italian origin, others whose names sounded Italian, or just because they had Italian friends were designated as enemy aliens. They were forced by the RCMP to register their names and report to the RCMP on a monthly basis. In some cases travel restrictions were imposed upon them. Others had their assets seized by the state, while various Italian organizations were declared illegal, as was the teaching of the Italian language.
It was common for police forces to arrest and detain individuals they deemed to be security risks for no reason. These actions were enforced randomly based solely on ethnicity and affected anyone whose name ended in a vowel. This meant that Italians and non-Italians alike had to spend nights in jail.
These measures caused severe damage to the psyche of Italian communities in Canada. Within the Italian community there was a tremendous respect for authority and therefore a tendency to defer to authority figures, even in incidents where there were abuses. This was compounded by the fact that Italians simply wanted to fit in to their new homeland and be viewed as good Canadians by their compatriots. While there was a certain degree of indignation within the community, they mostly felt shame, so they suffered in silence.
But this bill does not only speak to those individuals. This bill speaks to the most tragic part of the story. It is the story of over 1,000 persons of Italian origin. I speak of those who were subjected to internment in prison camps, mainly in Petawawa, picked up in the middle of the night, put on a train and sent to prison camps. To those who were never charged, just detained and harassed, the toll that internment took on those individuals and their families is too great to do justice in such a limited amount of time, but their story must be told.
One may ask, what are a few hundred or a thousand people?
First, it is the untold story of an entire community that suffered, a story where many professionals of Italian origin at that time were too embarrassed or scared to be seen as they were, which is Italian, causing many of them to change their names. This dealt a crippling blow to the burgeoning Italian community as a generation of leaders was lost to them.
Second, let us remember the time in history that we are dealing with. During the internment most of those arrested were males, many of whom were the head of their household and the sole breadwinner for their family, which in the late 1930s and early 1940s was far more crippling to a family than it would be today. They were taken away from their families without reason. Mothers and children were left behind to fend for themselves in a land they were still trying to comprehend. They were left on their own with no social programs, no community based organizations, no charter of rights. There was a language barrier. Many were illiterate. There was no government to turn to. Such a dire situation befalling Canadian residents is unthinkable to Canadians today, but this was not the worst of it.
While the detainees were put to work on forced labour projects, such as the construction of roads and the clearing of land, many of their families, already stigmatized by the broader community, isolated themselves from other people of Italian origin as well. In order not to be viewed as a family in dire straits, many families turned inward to avoid further shame. The burden they bore was the heaviest of all, and I ask this chamber, for what reason?
Why? That the government of the day was shaken by the war is understandable, but it cannot justify the fact that people like James Franceschini were taken from their family. When Mr. Franceschini arrived in Canada in 1906, at the age of 15, he was penniless and spoke no English. He found work and saved what it took to set up his own excavation firm. He became Canada's largest road contractor.
When Canada went to war, Mr. Franceschini founded Dufferin Shipbuilding Company in order to build for the government what was probably the least expensive minesweepers in the country. When Italy declared war with Canada, the government seized the business, arrested James Franceschini and interned him in a camp as the subject of an enemy country.
Like Mr. Franceschini, most of the internees were people who were important in their community. Their arrest was to serve as an example to other Italian Canadians. The government's action also led ordinary citizens to attack Italians. Italian Canadian businesses were boycotted and employees were ostracized by their colleagues and fired by their employer. Even Italian gravestones were vandalized.
However, despite the blows to Italian Canadians during the war, there is no doubt as to their loyalty to Canada. The community made a significant contribution to the war effort. Many young men volunteered for combat in the Canadian armed forces, and young Italian women supported the war effort through their work for the Canadian Red Cross.
Since World War II, and in the decades after the internment, Italian Canadians continued to embrace Canada just as they had prior. The dream of integrating into their new homeland was pursued anew and the contributions they have made to Canadian society in fields such as arts, politics, business, sports, science, the humanities and any other sector one could think of has been of great benefit to Canada.
It is also true that Canadians have become aware of issues pertaining to human rights and cultural diversity over the years and, as a result, the inherent injustice of the actions taken against people of Italian origin as a result of being designated “enemy aliens” is evident to all Canadians who are aware of this issue.
As we are more enlightened now than we once were, I think that resistance to addressing this issue is nothing short of ridiculous. We know what happened and we know that what happened was wrong, so I have one question. Since 1940, why has a Canadian prime minister not stood in this chamber and apologized?
The Government of Canada has issued official apologies through the prime minister and this House of Commons to groups such as Chinese Canadians, Indian Canadians, Aboriginal Canadians and Japanese Canadians who were also interned during World War II, and our country has been strengthened in each instance because we did the right thing. Why will we not do the same for Italian Canadians? Why does the government continue to pit groups against each other for justice and recognition? Is there a moratorium on doing the right thing that I am not aware of or does the government believe that the injustice visited upon Italian Canadians during World War II was too insignificant to warrant a proper apology?
This is an apology for Canadians by Canadians. It is time for the Government of Canada to do the right thing and offer an apology in the House of Commons for the internment of persons of Italian origin during World War II.
This is why, in essence, we must pass this bill. As the member for Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, a riding that has the highest concentration of people of Italian extraction in the country, I can assure you that my electors and my community feel the situation has gone on long enough and must be resolved once and for all.
The Italian community is united on this issue. They have been patient, and perhaps too patient as there are very few, if any, individuals alive out there today who were interned, but many of their children who also bore the brunt of this injustice and experienced this firsthand are still with us. Any action taken to address the suffering caused by the internment of their parents would be more meaningful if we could look them in the eye when that action is taken.
It would be tragic if we continued to allow a generation of Canadians to remain unaware of their own history. For better or for worse, it is our history and we must claim ownership of it. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be to reclaim it. Soon it will be lost to us forever and with this the opportunity to better ourselves. Time is not on our side in this instance.
Again, this would not only be for the benefit of one ethnic community but for our entire country. If history has taught us anything, it is that those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.
One wonderful thing about Canada is that it is a brave country. We have always had enough courage to look at ourselves objectively, recognize our flaws, own up to our mistakes and take up difficult challenges before they become too immense to handle. Every time we have done so, our country has benefited immensely.
This is why my bill proposes that the Government of Canada officially recognizes, apologizes and provides restitution that should be based on the agreement in place, signed on November 12, 2005 between the Government of Canada and the Italian Canadian community of which the signatories were the National Congress of Italian-Canadians, the National Federation of Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association, the Order Sons of Italy of Canada and La Fondation communautaire canadienne italienne du Québec which called for the Government of Canada to pay $12.5 million in restitution to the Italian Canadian community for the internment of Italian Canadians during World War II.
I am sure we can correct the error that the internment of Italian Canadians represents. To this end, I propose the production of educational materials relating to Italian-Canadian history and promoting ethnic and racial harmony and also providing an account of internments during the second world war and of the contributions Italian Canadians made to the advancement of Canada.
I propose as well that a stamp or series of stamps be issued by Canada Post. This would be the ideal way to make this story known across the country, since the process is simple, established and requires no additional investment.
I will close on a more personal note. My personal story is but a footnote in the ever-growing book of Canadian history but it is indicative of the progress Canadians of Italian origin have made over the years as a result of living in such a wonderful country.
This story does have a dark chapter that stands starkly in contrast with all the others. I say it is time to write a new ending to this chapter. Even if it is 69 years after the fact, we must acknowledge, apologize and redress the wrongs of the past so we can turn the page once and for all on this dark chapter in Canadian history.
I am a proud Canadian, born and bred, but I do not see this as being my battle but my country's battle to win the war against the most insidious enemy there is, and that is apathy. It is what stops a good person from being moved to fight against what they know is wrong. I have the honour of going to work every day and serving my country while honouring my heritage. My constituents and community have put their faith in me and I must always be willing to stand up against what I know is wrong to justify their trust.
All I am doing here today is standing up against what I know is wrong and I hope the good people who fill this chamber choose to stand with me.