moved that the bill be read the third time and passed.
Mr. Speaker, as you said, this bill seeks 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.
It is a pleasure for me to rise on this bill. This is the first hour of the third reading.
It is a parliamentary tradition that debates in the House tend to be repetitive, but today I will try not to repeat what I said during my speech to Parliament at second reading. That will be difficult.
The summary does a good job of explaining the bill:
The purpose of this enactment is to recognize and apologize for the treatment that persons of Italian origin received in Canada during the Second World War in spite of the contribution that they have made and continue to make to the building of Canada.
The enactment also provides for restitution to be made in respect of this treatment. The restitution payment is to be applied to the development and production of educational materials relating to Italian-Canadian history and promoting ethnic and racial harmony, and to other projects agreed to by the Minister of Canadian Heritage and an educational foundation established for this purpose.
I want to begin by saying that this apology is long overdue.
Here it is a question of the injustice that was done to Canadians of Italian origin through their enemy alien designation during the second world war.
There is no question about the internment actually happening. There are some questions as to the actual number of Italians who were interned. If we do some research and a bit of reading, not all the documents are in order. So there are different numbers that have been thrown out there. There are numbers of up to 6,000 people who were arrested after the internment happened.
No one was ever charged.
Not one person was ever charged. Some people were arrested and were simply held overnight, and some were held up to three or even four years in prison camps. So there are extremes from one end of the spectrum to the other. Some people were fingerprinted and then had to report to the police station on a weekly basis. Some of these registers were lost. That is why we cannot have an accurate account of how many were actually affected. The only count that we actually have is of the ones who were held in Petawawa. They were taken as young as 16 years of age and as old as 70.
Most of the people arrested were men, but there were also some women.
In some cases, some were picked up in the middle of the night and taken 3,000 miles away. Imagine that. Of course, not all were Italians. Some were arrested simply because they had a name ending in a vowel.
The exact number of people held in internment camps is unknown, but we know that roughly 700 were held in Petawawa alone. Others were detained in three other camps. There was one on Saint Helen's Island near the island of Montreal, and there were two other camps in Atlantic Canada. My understanding is there was one in Fredericton and one in Nova Scotia.
Just to put the whole item in context, Canada versus the States, the war happened and Canada reacted in the fashion it did, but in the U.S., only 228 were interned out of a possible 300,000 U.S. citizens of Italian origin. In Canada, those of Italian origin were estimated to number about 112,000, roughly 40,000 of whom were born in Canada, and as many as 30,000 were on an undesirable list.
We are talking about 40-odd years ago. We can imagine the impact the internment would have had on people's lives. We have to understand Italian culture and how they would have taken something like this.
I have something to read, right out of a magazine or newspaper article in Il Postino, in English, from May 2007. I will read an excerpt, which says:
But my grandmother didn't speak with her daughter about the internment until the 1950s, and then only briefly. “There was no reason to discuss it,” my grandmother, [a]...citizen of English descent, says unquestioningly. “We put it out of our minds and behind us. I didn't tell any of the children until they were grown. We were so ashamed.”
Imagine. There are families out there who do not even know that this happened to them. It is probably explained best as the article goes on to say:
When my grandfather died in 1957, the story of precisely what he was thinking [at the prison camps] died with him, as he wanted. My grandmother will say only that he was terribly depressed during his weeks there, that he feared the ruin of his career, that his health declined.
It goes on and on, talking about how this single family just kept it secret from the rest of the family. Many who were interned were just sons of Italian parents. Of course, the Italians who came to this country were not the most educated. Many were illiterate, and they were accused of being spies. Imagine a spy not being able to read.
Families were receiving mail that was marked “POW”. Imagine people going down the street to pick up their mail and receiving a big envelope marked “POW”. They could just imagine what their next door neighbours thought of them.
Think again: 40 or 50 years ago, the people who were arrested were primarily males, which meant they were the breadwinners. In those times, people did not necessarily have money put aside but were just living day to day, if not week to week. If they did not have a paycheque, the family could not pay the rent or for groceries. The families had to go and live with another family. Families were directly impacted.
Some were fairly well off. The males were arrested and their family businesses were lost. There are tons of stories about that. If people go on the Internet, there is actually a film by the National Film Board on the internment that shows well-to-do Italian families that lost their businesses.
Even if they were just arrested for a week or a month, rumours and stories continued after they were released. This destroyed families. It destroyed people's character. More importantly what it destroyed was the community, a community of people, some of whom, because of their embarrassment, came home and decided to change their name, to get rid of that vowel at the end of their name, and they decided not to be associated with anybody in the Italian community.
This was 50 years ago, and we can imagine how many of these individuals would have been professionals today, whether it be accountants, my favourite type of profession, or lawyers, doctors, dentists, and so forth. There may have been even a few politicians along the way.
Simply put, their liberty was taken away.
This is a private member's bill. It is very simply drafted with the limited amount of resources we have. I am hoping that we can work together to get this bill passed, as it is supported by members of every party in this House.
What we are doing, very simply, is requesting an apology in the House of Commons. Some people thought this would be a problem. It would be on the record. The bill is asking the Parliament of Canada to hereby acknowledge the unjust treatment received by persons of Italian origin. Obviously that apology would be given by the Prime Minister.
In fact, I do have to be up front here and say that there had been an apology to the Italian community about what happened 45 years earlier, by the then prime minister, Brian Mulroney. It was at an Italian dinner. He did call the event legally wrong and immoral, but the problem was that he never officially apologized in the House of Commons. It is on the record that he was going to apologize in the House of Commons.
Nonetheless, he never did.
The purpose of this bill is to recognize the injustice that was done to Canadians of Italian origin. It is not complicated. This is not a precedent setting measure. This has already been done in the House. This was done during the Brian Mulroney years for the Japanese community. And a few years ago, the current Prime Minister made an apology to the Chinese community.
I also have some of the bills and they are on the record, so this is not something that is made up. The Library of Parliament prepared a report, a research paper. So there were official apologies. We could even include the official apology that was made to the residential schoolchildren.
The other thing that the bill is asking for is compensation. The compensation is not the important part. The compensation is mainly to educate Canadians, and I am not just talking about Canadians of Italian origin, as to what happened in the past, because it is a way to correct the mistakes of the past. We need to keep those, I will not say memories, alive, but we need to find a way to educate our young people. That is what I am getting these days in my office, Italians of third and fourth generation asking me about the internment. They understand that I have a private member's bill. A couple of students have actually won awards across Canada for doing a project on the internment, and they are astounded that most people my age are not even aware of what happened with the internment. Older Italians just want to forget about it. Here we are, as I said before, having lost a couple of generations and not being able to understand what happened to us before.
In terms of the compensation, basically I will just read from the bill what we are asking for:
The Minister of Canadian Heritage, in cooperation with the Minister of Finance, shall negotiate with the National Congress of Italian Canadians an agreement for a suitable payment to be made in restitution for the unjust treatment described in section 3, which agreement shall be proposed to Parliament for approval.
The proposed agreement is more or less the same as the one that was reached with the Italian community in another parliament.
I do not think there is any controversy here. We have people from all parties supporting it. I want to put on the record that I thank the Liberals. Pretty well everybody from the Liberal Party supported it, although I think there were a few missing. The NDP, of course, and the Bloc Québécois were very supportive of the bill, not only through their voting but also in committee and through issuing press releases trying to force the government to get its act together and get this bill through so that we can send it to the Senate and move on with history.
I did attend a couple of meetings when this particular bill was studied in committee. We heard from different Italian associations or organizations. There was the Canadian Italian Business and Professional Association, the national chapter and some local chapters. We had la Fondation communautaire canadienne-italienne du Québec. We had the Orders Sons of Italy of Canada. We had the National Congress of Italian Canadians, the national and the Quebec chapters. Those were the four organizations that actually signed an agreement with the Government of Canada three or four years ago for some type of restitution in the ballpark of around $12.5 million, but the Minister of Canadian Heritage can negotiate that part of the deal.
Not only do we have full support from these four national organizations, we added another one, Casa d'Italia, which was the first community centre in Montreal where the Italians congregated and they were probably the most affected during the time of the internment.
Oddly enough, we also had a partisan organization, the Italian Canadian advisory committee on this new program that the Conservatives decided they would have. There were three Conservatives on that advisory committee and they were all for the bill.
There is no question that the bill should be put forward. We also had the immigration minister come forward. I am not sure why he came forward. I asked for the heritage minister . I think the immigration minister , no disrespect to him, does not understand the file, and I do not think he should be in charge of the bill. I would like to see the heritage minister pick up the file and push it along so we can get this bill through the Senate.
Again I would like to thank all the MPs who spoke in favour of the bill during the second reading. I look forward to questions and comments from the members.