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by Teresa Romano and Eden Debebe

Ottawa’s official apology for the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War concludes a sad chapter for countless people who have had their lives forever changed by the traumatizing experience.

By using the War Measures Act of the time, governments were able to revoke rights, seize property and arrest more than 600 citizens of Italian origin they considered a threat to Ottawa’s security after Italy allied with Nazi Germany on June 10, 1940. 

At the same time, 31,000 Italian-Canadians were labeled as “enemy aliens”.

“I’ve talked to over 50 families across Canada and the effect of the internment has ranged from everything from financial losses, health losses, pride, shame, changes of their life because they had intentions of going to school,” said Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella.

“But there is one thing in common in all these stories is that they all felt that they were loyal Canadians and this really impacted them because the idea that somebody said that they were enemy aliens, that they were disloyal to Canada, affected them a lot.”

Pillarella’s journey into the history and life of those forced into Canada’s internment camps began after she found a postcard sent by her grandfather from a camp near Fredericton. After spending thirty years studying archived documents and collecting the stories of families destroyed by the often indiscriminate arrests of the time, Pillarella said she is ready for the long-awaited moral justice long overdue to Italian-Canadians.

“We didn’t even talk about an apology with the families,” Pillarella said.

“It was just about talking about what happened, trying to understand what happened. It was about healing. It wasn’t about getting something from the government; but we were able to have the government’s ear. They listened to us. They listened very carefully.”

For Canadian Senator Tony Loffreda, the formal apology will be an opportunity for the federal government to uphold true Canadian values.

“Many Canadians of Italian origin were imprisoned without due process and we are a nation of law, a nation of due process, nation of justice, a nation that believes in equality, that believes in equality for all, that believes in diversity,” Loffreda said.

“We should promote those values. And having imprisoned Italian leaders, having imprisoned Italian business people at the time, doesn’t promote those values and doesn’t render us as Canadians proud or justice.”

Though none of the people put into the internment camps are alive today, Loffreda shared his hopes that the apology will help their families heal and recognize their contributions.

“I think this apology kind of shows the respect Canada has had for [the Italian] community and the respect Canada has for our community going forward,” Loffreda.

“We have contributed so much to this country, to Canada. The immigrants came here. They risked everything they had. They came here with suitcases. They came here with little family, little friends. And look at what the Canadians and the Italians of Canadian origin have created, how they have contributed to this country. I am proud.”