Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to the bill, a bill that, when it was before committee, certainly stirred up strong emotions on all sides. When the bill was up for second reading I rose from my seat and voted against the bill because, while the bill has good intent, it is actually a very poor bill.
I am pleased to speak to an issue that concerns one of Canada's largest cultural groups. The last census indicated that there were about 1.4 million Canadians of Italian descent. I do not have an English name but I have never looked at myself as anything but a Canadian. I suppose I am a Canadian of Italian descent but I always object to the title “Italian Canadian”.
Italians were among the earliest Europeans to migrate to this continent. They have unquestionably contributed significantly to Canada and to North America if we look to our partners to the south in the United States. Americans of Italian descent have contributed significantly to that country. We can go back as far as 1881 when there were literally cascades of Italians immigrating to Canada and they were contributing toward massive construction projects, like the Canadian Pacific Railway.
This year will mark the 70th anniversary of the Italian internment in Canada. I would like to take members back to when Italy declared war on the Allies in 1940. The prime minister of the day ordered the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians identified as enemy aliens. The prime minister invoked the War Measures Act known as the Defence of Canada Regulations. Today we look at the War Measures Act, which was repealed, by the way, by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988, the same Brian Mulroney who apologized to Canadians of Italian descent in 1990. I will get into that in a little while.
However, we look at that time and we look at the prime minister and Parliament invoking the War Measures Act at that time and wonder how they could do that. How could they have done that to Canadian citizens? The government also passed an order in council calling for the registration of all persons of Italian birth and for the confiscation of enemy aliens' property.
Despite the financial hardship and the shame suffered by some of their countrymen, hundreds of Italian Canadians enlisted in the Canadian armed forces because they felt the war against Fascism and Nazism was justified. The most decorated veteran from my city was a Canadian of Italian descent. He actually went to war serving in Italy on a battlefield where he met family members on the other side, but felt passionately enough about the cause to fight for Canada. It is an incredible story. There can be no doubt that Canadians of Italian descent have made enormous contributions to our nation and these historical facts constitute one of the saddest and most dramatic chapters in the annals of Canadian history.
As I said, the hon. member who brought forward Bill C-302, Italian-Canadian Recognition and Restitution Act, in relation to this dark chapter in our nation's history, has done so I believe with good intent, but it does not change the fact that it is a very bad bill and divides Canadians of Italian descent. In fact it looks backward at a time in Canadian history, but not backward enough to see that the apology that was offered some 20 years ago had a very profound effect on the Italian community.
I just want to reference something from a friend of mine, Annamarie Castrilli, who was the president of the National Congress of Italian Canadians. She was instrumental in obtaining the courageous admission of an apology by the then prime minister, Brian Mulroney. She wrote to me and said, “As you know, this year marks the 70th anniversary of the internment. To commemorate this, I have been asked to write a book which deals with what led up to the apology and the circumstances that existed in 1940. I am one of only two commissioners left who actually talked and corresponded with internees. There is only one left to my knowledge. The book is an analysis of the situation in Canada during World War II and the noble act of one prime minister where all else had failed. Whatever else may be said of Brian Mulroney, this was a significant achievement that set the record straight and profoundly changed the life of a community”.
She goes on to include a copy of the speech given by the then prime minister, Brian Mulroney.
This bill calls for an apology on behalf of Parliament, the Government of Canada and the Canadian people. The problem is that it suggests that there was an injustice, that the government acted illegally. We can look back at that time and ask how they could have done this. How could we actually have a law like the War Measures Act in place in a country like Canada that believes in rights and freedoms? We have the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It was a Conservative prime minister in 1958, I believe, who brought in the bill of rights protecting the rights of all Canadians.
We look back and wonder how that was possible but, unfortunately, it was not illegal. The then Liberal government acted within the law in enacting the War Measures Act. Bill C-302 calls for restitution to Italian Canadians in the form of educational projects that provide information on Italian Canadian history and promote ethnic and racial harmony. However, it also opens the door for unlimited liability from the Crown to persons who would seek damages from the Crown.
The member referenced other apologies. I acknowledge that we did have an apology for the Chinese head tax. I know that an injustice is an injustice and a crime is a crime, but the scale of what happened to Chinese Canadians or Canadians from the Chinese community occurred over decades of discrimination by the Crown. It was profound. It was unquestionably a sad time in our history. I know that we as Canadians are proud that we have moved beyond that but the scale of it was much larger. However, an agreement was arrived at.