In 1940, the Federal Government passed the War Measures Act and declared hundreds of Italian-Canadian citizens enemy aliens. They were unlawfully arrested and forced into internment camps in Ontario, Alberta and New Brunswick until the end of the Second World War. Many more Italian- Canadians were required to report to authorities on a regular basis. None of the arrested were ever found guilty of acts of sabotage. The internment left psychological scars of shame on those who were arrested as well as their families. Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized, but the Canadian Parliament never officially declared that it had committed a mistake.
Casa D’Italia president Angela Minicucci
“This is the very first official commemoration organized by a government body,” revealed Minicucci. “There is a direct relationship with this event and City Hall.” From 1940 to 1946, Casa d’Italia was occupied by the Canadian Army. Past mayor of Montreal, Camillien Houde, who donated the land on which Casa d’Italia was built, was also interned at Petawawa with Italian detainees. After the war, Houde became a Quebec City MNA and presented a private bill (which later became law) to have Casa d’Italia returned to the Italian community.
Oral historian Joyce Pillarella with Mayor Camillien Houde in the bacground
Minicucci also stressed that recognition from the government was important for the healing process of families and the Italian community as a whole. “If you only understood the emotion that I went through,” said Robert Nincheri, grandson of famous painter Guido Nincheri. “The government should turn around and say ‘Yes, we are sorry.’ We as Italians, we remember and we forgive and we build on that. We don’t hold any grudges. It was another historical period that can’t be judged from the perspective of today.” For decades, community groups and artists across Canada have been actively raising awareness through publications, plays, exhibitions and ceremonies to commemorate this dark moment in Canadian history. Recent funding for these initiatives were rewarded by Heritage Canada with a one-time program designed for internment-related projects such as the “Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of World War II” (www.italiancanadianww2.ca) website.
Angela Minicucci and Robert Nincheri, grandson of famous painter Guido Nincheri
“Making the information accessible is fundamental because our aim is to create awareness,” argues Minicucci. “For the families, it is important, as some of them did not even feel safe attending this ceremony. There is still a lot of fear. A lot of them think it is still taboo to speak about it. However, they are slowly realizing that there is nothing to be scared of in telling their story and by doing so, they are contributing in creating this awareness and are learning from it. Because these are our pioneers. We have not been here for 500 years. And if we lose their oral history, we lose it forever.”
Group picture Remembrance ceremony at Montreal's City Hall
The Casa d’Italia archive centre is actively collecting documents that help tell the story of Italian-Canadians.