Statement made on 27 May 2010 by Senator Joan Fraser
Hon. Joan Fraser:
Honourable senators, I know the hour is late and I shall try not to keep you any longer than necessary, but I believe this bill addresses an important element of Canadian history that many, if not most, Canadians are not aware of, and that is, as the title of the bill suggests, the internment of hundreds of Italian- Canadians during World War II and the unnecessary, unjustified suffering of many other Italian-Canadians during that period 70 years ago.
This bill acknowledges, and apologizes for, the injustices done then. It calls for restitution to be negotiated with the community and for an educational foundation to be established to carry out appropriate work in recognition of the internment, and finally, for Canada Post to issue a stamp or a set of stamps to commemorate the internment of the Italian Canadians.
Honourable senators, it is important to describe, as briefly as I can, the history that led to this bill. It goes back to dark times for Western civilization. In the spring of 1940, France had fallen and, in Europe, Britain stood alone with only Canada and the other Commonwealth countries to support her from across the seas. Emotions ran high. On June 11, 1940, Mussolini declared war on us. This did not come as a total surprise and Canadian authorities had been turning their mind ahead of time to what should be done in such an eventuality.
One of the most eminent public servants ever to serve in Canada, Norman Robertson, had studied the matter and reported to then-Minister of Justice Ernest Lapointe, in 1939, that a large majority of Italian Canadians were not disloyal to this country and that it would not be in the public interest to recommend their immediate arrest at the outbreak of any war between Canada and Italy. He also reported that any arrest on the grounds of disloyalty would have to be based on evidence and corroborated with proof that the individual in question was likely to act in a manner prejudicial to public safety.
Those were wise recommendations from Mr. Robertson, but they did not, unfortunately, avail. When Mussolini declared war on us, the then Prime Minister Mackenzie King invoked the War Measures Act immediately. Six thousand Italians were arrested as enemy aliens. That group included even those who had been citizens of this country since as far back as 1922. Those arrested included Canadians of Italian origin who had served this country in World War I and whose sons were serving this country in World War II. Those arrested included all sorts and conditions of persons, from professionals and business people down to ordinary labourers who were illiterate, many of whom did not speak French or English. How they could possibly be suspected of being spies in any effective sense passes the imagination. We are told that some of those who were arrested were arrested simply because they had Italian names or, even worse, because they looked Italian, whatever that may mean.
Of those who were arrested, several hundred — we do not know the exact number, but best estimates seem to range between 700 and 1,000 — were interned in camps. Most were sent to a camp up the river in Petawawa. Others were sent to camps on Saint Helen's Island in Montreal and in the Maritime provinces. Incidentally, our internment rate was proportionately far higher, than in the United States.
We arrested and interned all those people even though only about 100 people were thought by the RCMP to be active members of the Fascist Party. Not one of those arrested or interned was ever charged, let alone tried, with an offence of any kind under Canadian law.
The internees were released only gradually, some after several months and some only after several years. The consequences of what happened in 1940 were great, then and later, for them, for their families and for their communities. The immediate consequence was, of course, the loss of income to the families. Almost all, I believe all but four of those interned, were men. They were mostly the principal breadwinners. Those families suddenly found themselves alone, without an income and as a result the family property was confiscated. Those families often found it difficult to find other means of support because there was great social discrimination against Italian Canadians, encouraged, of course, by the government policy that said if you even looked Italian, you were probably worth arresting.
There was a great sense of stigma in the community, and it was not just stigma in the sense that we may feel an emotion that is not justified in reality. Too many Italian Canadians who were good, loyal Canadians suffered significantly from these events.
I cite only the case of one Ottawa fireman. He never got his job back with the fire department, or even his pension, even though the commissioner who examined his case said he should never have been arrested, let alone detained. That man joined the Canadian Navy in 1942 to serve this country.
It is no wonder, when people were facing that kind of discrimination, that most members of the community remained silent in the following years. They wanted to put it behind them and get on with building their lives in the new country they had chosen. Some of them changed their names to avoid being perceived as Italian Canadians. There are people today who did not know for many years that their father's name was Giuseppe or Giovanni. They thought their father's name was Joe or Jack.
Although many in the community remained silent, and that silence, although understandable, contributed to our collective ignorance of these events, some did press for apologies, notably, although not only, the National Congress of Italian Canadians. Over the years, they kept pressing.
In 1990, on November 4, in a speech to the National Congress of Italian Canadians, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did something very important — he apologized. Mr. Mulroney said:
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. In fact, many of the arrests were based on membership in Italian-Canadian organizations — much like the ones represented here today. None of the 700 internees was ever charged with an offence and no judicial proceedings were launched. It was often, in the simplest terms, an act of prejudice — organized and carried out under law, but prejudice nevertheless.
Prime Minister Mulroney went on:
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.
Those were noble words, and we should honour Mr. Mulroney for them. They were very important at the time; however, as a country, I think we have progressed since 1990. We now acknowledge that it is appropriate, at least on these most serious of occasions, to give open solemn recognition in Parliament of wrongs that were done by the Government and Parliament of Canada. That is what we have done, for example, for Chinese Canadians, for the head tax; Aboriginal Canadians, for residential schools; and perhaps most pertinently in today's context, for Japanese Canadians who suffered mass internment during those same years.
Properly done, these occasions of acknowledgment and apology are occasions of healing. I would argue that they can even be, in a sense, occasions of joy because they represent reconciliation among Canadians, and that is always an occasion for joy.
In the other place, this bill did not go without criticism, and I would like to address some of the criticisms that were raised then. The one that puzzled me the most was that there seemed to be some sense that because a Liberal presented this bill in the other place and somehow, that made it illegitimate. This bill was presented by Massimo Pacetti, an Italian Canadian from Montreal who has worked for this cause ever since he came to Parliament. Yes, Mr. Pacetti is a Liberal MP. It seems to me entirely fitting that it should have been a Liberal who took this initiative to try to have a formal recognition by Parliament of an injustice that was done by a Liberal government, in a majority Liberal Parliament. This strikes me not only as not inappropriate but as immensely appropriate.
Another criticism was that this bill is divisive among the Italian- Canadian community. Not being a member of that community, I cannot claim to understand all of the arguments leading to that particular criticism, but I think one of them relates to the fact that the bill calls for the restitution and the creation of the educational foundation with one organization, the National Congress of Italian Canadians, which is, of course, not the only major organization of Italian Canadians in this country. It is, however, the organization that the other groups that appeared before committee in the other place thought was appropriate to work with. It has established a foundation in the hope that something like this bill would eventually come to pass, to engage in educational activities. As I say, the other groups that appeared before committee in the other place support this bill.
Finally, another criticism was that the Government of Canada has had, for the past year or two, a Community Historical Recognition Program. The criticism suggests that this would be duplication. I think the key difference is that the Community Historical Recognition Program, which has obvious merit, is nonetheless a rather traditional, classic, top-down program where the government funds specific projects. The projects in question can be plaques and monuments, exhibits, educational materials or commemorative activities, whereas, this bill calls for is something rather more permanent, the form of which would be negotiated by the community that would then be authorized to administer it.
Honourable senators, there may be many reasons to argue with details of this bill. I know that a number of people have questions, for example, about the notion that Canada Post should be required, in legislation, to issue a stamp, and there may be other details that a careful examination in committee would deem required amendment. However, the principle of this bill is important and well worth support.
Mr. Pacetti has said many times that he does not think this is a bill for Italians. He says it is a bill for Canadians, about Canadians, and I think he is right. I think it would be well worth it and highly appropriate for us to acknowledge that and to support his bill. I hope honourable senators will, after study, agree with me.
Some Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!
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