Mr. Speaker, in 1940, Anthony Danesi was 23 years old when the RCMP, under orders from the government in Ottawa, arrested him and his brother at their home in Toronto. The officers took them away without charge and they were interned in a camp in Petawawa. These are his words that describe the terror his family felt some 80 years ago:
My mother at the time was over 60 years old and when she heard they were taking us away, she fainted on the floor from the shock. We were told “do not touch her, leave her there”.... We had to leave our home with the RCMP and a vision of my mother in a heap on the floor...even a dog would have been treated better....
On Christmas Day, my father passed away [but] we were not allowed to come home to pay our respects or go to his funeral.... I spent, along with my brother, two years and 12 days [interned] seeing my mother and sister only once. God only knows how they managed. We were released and sent home to try and pick up our lives and to try and clear the debts which had accumulated.
Hundreds of Italian Canadian families during World War II were forced to try to pick up their lives and recover from a trauma that had been inflicted upon them by their government.
On June 10, 1940, the Government of Canada, under the leadership of Prime Minister Mackenzie King, declared that tens of thousands of Canadians of Italian origin were enemy aliens. The federal government then ordered hundreds of these Canadians to be put in internment camps.
These people were arrested and denied a trial. They were denied the fundamental rights to which they were entitled under Canadian law. Thousands were put under investigation and were fingerprinted. Many were intimidated and harassed.
They were viewed with suspicion by their government and treated like second-class citizens, often only because of their surname or pride in their heritage. The impacts of this gross mistreatment would last for decades and pass through generations.
As leader of the official opposition on this solemn day, I want to use my time to talk about just a few of the families Canadians need to remember today.
Take, for example, the Giustini family from Ontario. Giuseppe Giustini's daughter, Lynda, witnessed her father being taken away in handcuffs from the grocery store he owned and operated in Timmins, Ontario. Giuseppe Giustini lost his liberty and dignity because he was known for helping new immigrants from Italy arriving in Timmins with a job at his store or helping them find a job in the mines of northern Ontario. He would get them settled and send some of their hard-earned savings back to their family in Italy.
Today, we celebrate and present awards to charitable Canadians like Giuseppe. Today, we would consider him a pillar of the community for helping people succeed in their new country, but in 1940, our country stripped the Giustini family of a husband and a father.
The trauma was something his daughter, Lynda, remembered for the rest of her life. She passed along this difficult family story to her children, and I know that her son, Joe, Giuseppe's grandson, is watching from his home in Barrie, Ontario today. I hope his family finds some comfort in this recognition today of the suffering caused to his family.
William Casanova was just nine years old when he witnessed the arrest of his father, Erminio Casanova, at their home in Windsor, Ontario. After almost two years of internment, Erminio was released but tragically died only a few months later. William wrote that his family had lost their dignity, their pride and their financial security. His mother suffered mental trauma from his father's internment and was institutionalized for nearly 15 years. This is another example of a family broken.
The consequences of being labelled an enemy alien by one's own country were soul-destroying for these families and deeply wounded Italian Canadian communities. Some families changed their name to hide their shame about what happened. Some moved to another province. Some even left Canada, hoping to leave behind the scars of internment.
I want to thank Dr. Annamarie Castrilli for sharing with me some of the letters from internees and their families so that my remarks could lend a voice to citizens who were failed long ago.
In 1990, these letters and memories were collected by the National Congress of Italian-Canadians, the NCIC, for the purpose of educating Canadians about this dark chapter in our history. That same year, the NCIC and other Italian Canadian cultural organizations hosted an event with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Toronto. Hundreds of people, including a number of victims who were still alive at the time, attended the event.
What former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said this day, over 30 years ago now, is worth repeating in this chapter today:
What happened to many Italian Canadians is deeply offensive to the simple notion of respect for human dignity and the presumption of innocence. The brutal injustice was inflicted arbitrarily, not only on individuals suspected of being security risks but also on individuals whose only crime was being of Italian origin.... It was often, in the simplest of terms, an act of prejudice—organized and carried out under law, but prejudice nonetheless....
This kind of behaviour was not then, is not now, and never will be acceptable in a civilized nation that purports to respect the rule of law. On behalf of the government and people of Canada, I offer a full and unqualified apology for the wrongs done to our fellow Canadians of Italian origin during World War II.
I wish members of the Italian Canadian community could have been with us today, but unfortunately, the COVID-19 public health restrictions made that impossible.
Whether it was the apology from then Prime Minister Mulroney at an event hosted by the Italian Canadian community in 1990 or the one delivered today in our House of Commons, both are equally important. They acknowledge the pain caused to thousands of Canadians by their own government. We cannot heal the trauma inflicted upon the Danesi family. We cannot help a young Lynda Giustini or William Casanova forget the terror of watching their fathers being taken away from them in their family store or in their home.
What we can do today is apologize to their descendants. We must recognize the profound impact these events had on their families. We must show them that we will never forget this sad chapter in our history or its impact on people's lives.
We must also remember that from our earliest history, millions have come to Canada for a better life and have contributed to the building of our great country. Sir Wilfrid Laurier perhaps put it best:
We do not want nor wish that any individual should forget the land of his origin. Let them look to the past, but let them still more look to the future. Let them look to the land of their ancestors, but let them look also to the land of their children. Let them become Canadians…and give their heart, their soul, their energy and all their power to Canada.
For over a century, Italian Canadians have indeed given their big hearts, their tireless energy and their labour to Canada.
Italian Canadians have always looked ahead to the future. They have helped shape our history, even in the face of discrimination and adversity. This makes their contribution to our country even more powerful.
I know from speaking about the 1990 apology with then Prime Minister Mulroney and former Senator Consiglio Di Nino that the Italian Canadian community wanted to celebrate its contributions in equal measure to preserving the history of the internment, discrimination and hardship. At the time, Prime Minister Mulroney urged his audience to look at the impressive Toronto skyline after they left the event that day. “Just look at it”, he said. “The first generation of Italian immigrants to Canada built those buildings. The second generation owns them.” That, my friends and colleagues, is the Canada we are all, regardless of party, trying to build, foster and advance today.
Today we are writing a new chapter in Canada's history, a chapter that does not correct the injustices of the past, but helps us look ahead to the future.
Mr. Speaker, it is good to see an Italian Canadian in the chair.
On behalf of my colleagues in the House, and of Conservative Party members from across this great country, many Italian Canadians among them, I want to add our name and the opposition's name to the apology delivered by the Prime Minister today.