Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized today for the internment of Canadians of Italian descent and the community’s mistreatment during World War II.
“To the tens of thousands of innocent Italian Canadians who were labelled enemy aliens, to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt and to their community, a community that has given so much to our country, we are sorry,” said the prime minister in the House of Commons.
Canada interned more than 600 people of Italian heritage — sometimes for months or years — and declared about 31,000 of them “enemy aliens” after Italian dictator Benito Mussolini entered the war on the side of Nazi Germany in 1940.
The men were housed in camps in Petawawa and Kingston, Ont., Fredericton, N.B., and Kananaskis, Alta.
While the apology received support from the House, it has come under scrutiny.
Don’t rewrite history, historian warns
Some historians have warned that Ottawa should be careful not to rewrite history. They worry that, in an attempt to make amends, the government is absolving some actual fascists.
Roberto Perin, professor emeritus of history at York University, said that in the 1930s and ’40s, approximately 3,000 Canadians were card-carrying members of the Italian fascist party, including some of those interned. These cards, he said, stated that they would be prepared to shed blood for Mussolini and his fascist government.
“When we say that people were interned simply for being Italian, this is nonsense,” Perin said in an interview with CBC News last week.
“They were interned because the government had some evidence. Now, how serious this evidence was is an issue to be determined, but [the RCMP] had evidence that these people had links with the Italian fascist party.”
But the Liberal government has argued the apology is warranted because the detentions were unjustified. For example, they say several people were interned based on the fact that they donated to the Italian Red Cross.
“When the authorities came to their door, when they were detained, there were no formal charges, no ability to defend themselves in an open and fair trial, no chance to present or rebut evidence,” said Trudeau in his remarks Thursday.
“To stand up to the Italian regime that had sided with Nazi Germany, that was right. But to scapegoat law-abiding Italian Canadians, that was wrong.”
In his response, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told the story of William Casanova, who was nine years old when he watched police arrest his father at their home in Windsor, Ont. After almost two years of internment, his father was released but died 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. Another example of a family broken,” said O’Toole.
“Hundreds of Italian Canadian families during World War Two were forced to try and pick up their lives and recover from a trauma that had been inflicted on them by their government.”
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the government’s actions, which also included pulling children out of school and freezing bank accounts, as racism.
“It was a system that was purposely designed to keep people out of their rightful place in society,” he said.
“And to everyone in this House, let’s recommit to never let this happen again.”