‘We have a responsibility to tell their stories. The children of the internees are the living link to this event’
North Bay’s Italian community has spent the early part of June holding a series of educational events intended to raise awareness about the internment of Italian Canadians from northern Ontario during WWII.
“Italian Remembrance, Recognition and Renewal” is the theme, as they looked at the long-term implications of the actions taken by the Government of Canada during that time in history.
On Saturday, dozens came to witness the unveiling of a memorial stone at the North Bay waterfront, with relatives of some of the internees present.
“Thank you to all of you who are learning the history of the declaration of Italian Canadians as enemy aliens of WWII. With more than 1.5 million people of Italian heritage, Canada is the proud home of one of the largest Italian diasporas in the world,” stated emcee Gerry Mendicino.
“The community has enriched all aspects of our society and continues to do so here in North Bay, however today we acknowledge the historic injustices that the Italian Canadian community faced during the Second World War.”
The Government of Canada issued an apology in 2021 for past historic events.
“A formal apology was delivered by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons for the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians. With the unveiling of a memorial stone in North Bay today, we remember the 30 families from northern Ontario who were unjustly declared enemy aliens. We recognize the Canadian government’s apology and we learn from these past wrongs as we continue to build and renew a more equitable and just society,” added Mendicino.
Oral historian Joyce Pillarella is also an affiliate of the history department of Concordia University, who for the past 30 years has been a driving force behind the movement to recognize the injustice.
As the granddaughter of an internee, she was curious to uncover what happened to her own grandfather. She started researching in the archives in Ottawa about 30 years ago.
She shared her journey for truth with those gathered for the memorial stone unveiling.
“I only get the story from the top down, then about 15 years ago I started interviewing families to get from the bottom up. That’s when it became interesting because things didn’t match,” said Pillarella.
The biggest discovery to come out of her research was the silence within the Italian community, because for many of the families felt shame.
“They also didn’t know what happened. It was never made clear to the families why their civil rights were suspended in the way they were done and so there was a lot of shame and silence around this story and that was passed on from one generation to the next.”
The historian also shared that when the men were released, they had to sign gag orders.
“So that added even more to the silence. When I started to try to interview people it was really difficult because they had very little information and then I found myself having to analyze silence, like what was missing in the stories and why.”
What the historian did find was while the conditions the men were living in were “fine”, the women were having a harder time.
“They (men) were fine in the sense that they were fed,” said Pillarella.
“But the women had a really difficult time because their resources were cut off. The Custodian of Enemy Property seized their property. Their bank accounts were frozen. In different cities, their relief was cut off. And you’ve got to remember in 1940 women had a lot of children, so the breadwinner was gone, and they had a large family. They also had a difficult time because people didn’t want to rent to them. Their kids even had a hard time finding jobs, some kids had to be pulled out of school. So whether they were wealthy or not, they were losing property and access to funds, so the women had a much more difficult time than the men.”
Pillarella explained the importance of the monument..
“This is really a form of public speaking for people who can’t speak anymore.”
Pillarella said what is really remarkable is that the families remained proud Canadians, teaching their children to be good and proud Canadians.
“No matter what happened the story of being loyal to Canada and being Canadians first continued into the next generations,” Pillarella observed.
“It was their hope that one day they could tell their families and Canadians that they didn’t do anything wrong, that they were loyal Canadians. The Italian pioneers came to Canada because they believed that this was a country that makes your dreams come true. This is a country that gives you the chance to be who you should be and can be. But despite their beliefs, that dream was taken away from them in 1940. They were shamed publicly with the poisonous words ‘enemy alien.’ When the men returned from the camps many of the children described them as broken. Yet somehow they managed to teach their children and their grandchildren the meaning of courage, resilience, dignity and good citizenship.”
The stone unveiling ceremony touched close to home for Sandy O’Grady whose grandfather one of those imprisoned by the government.
”This day is just so immensely important to our whole family.”
Her grandfather was a successful businessman who in recent years had a library dedicated to him at the Empire Living Centre in downtown North Bay.
“The library was dedicated to Leo Mascioli because he built the Empire Hotel, he built four of them actually. I’m originally from Timmins,” shared a proud O’Grady as she discussed her grandfather’s history.
“And Granddad, after he had walked into Timmins in 1908 with a pack on his back, 32 years later, the government came and took him and threw him in a prison camp. He was declared an enemy alien which he was not, but it didn’t matter,” said O’Grady.
“And in my family, in particular, it was sort of a double whammy because my father was part of the Algonquin Regiment and fought overseas and ended up in a German prison camp. So think of my poor mother, she was sending parcels to her father and parcels to her husband, it’s nuts.”
“The pain and suffering from the Italian community, no one ever saw it because of the shame that was felt over those imprisonments. Everybody kept it very quiet. And when it was over, they said ‘Don’t talk about it. Put it away, move on.’ And they did move on. They were an amazing generation.”
She is hopeful the memorial stone educates people about what has been kept silent for so long.
“I hope they read the inscription, there are no family names, it is just what happened on June 10th, 1940. That is when they were all imprisoned. And also under the line of barbed wire that is carved in the stone, is our acknowledgment of the incredible apology that the Federal Government gave us a year ago in the house of commons and every party supported the apology. My sister and I sat there and watched it on T.V. with tears streaming down our faces. It is a story not many people know and partly to blame is the Italian community because they were so quiet about it afterwards out of shame,” stated O’Grady.
”This is just a way of public education and a way for us to give honour to those people which is a lovely feeling.”
David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada is also a proud Italian Canadian.
“The unveiling is significant because it helps Canadians to be educated about what happened during the Second World War when almost 600 Italian Canadians were declared enemy aliens. And the government of Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized May 27, 2021.”
Lamettie added that it is critically important because not a single person was ever charged with an offense. He said there were some women, but the vast majority of those imprisoned were men.
“Taken away by the RCMP in front of their families, in front of their children, in front of their spouses, in front of their community often. And then they were locked up and eventually brought to places like Canadian Forces Base Petawawa where they spent anywhere from a few months to a few years interned and they lost their businesses in many cases. They were business people, they were high profile people.”
Many lived with the stigma attached to being imprisoned.
“Because everybody thought that they had done something that they had in some way collaborated with the enemy and they had not.”
Lamettie said while there are no internees left, it was important for the government to apologize to their children and grandchildren.
“There are still some children left who remember their fathers being brought out by the RCMP and a lot of grandchildren and it was important to apologize to them to clear their father’s name,” said Lamettie in a quivering wavering voice.
“I get a little emotional about this. I am an Italian Canadian.”
The Minister said it hit him hard when the Prime Minister offered an apology.
“I was fighting back tears the whole day when he apologized in the House. I fought back tears when I was on the zoom call when he spoke to a number of families and families told me their stories. I’m fighting back tears today. And it is critically important for the community, it is critically important for the families in particular but also symbolically important that the Minister of Justice was an Italian Canadian.”
There was a tangible impact on the Italian community.
“These men came back and a lot of the families will tell you they never spoke Italian again in the home because they were afraid. So a lot of the kids and their grandchildren will say ‘You’re Canadian. You speak English.’ And they stopped speaking Italian. They never spoke about it. A lot of people never spoke about it until the Prime Minister called a number of families personally.”
Lamettie says Canadians need to be educated about what happened and how they moved forward.
“Families came back and became upstanding citizens. They became politicians, lawyers, judges, doctors, police officers and continued to be contributing members.”
“The parents never taught their children to be vengeful, to be spiteful with respect to Canada.”
Michelle Lashbrook, who is proud of her northern Ontario roots, is the owner of the company that made the memorial stone with design suggestions from some Davedi club members.
In the end, they came up with a simple design.
“We had a couple of meetings and they submitted what they were looking for. They wanted some barbed wire on it. They loved it so we went with it,” said Lashbrook.
“I think a lot of people don’t even understand our history or even what happened here in the past. So we should know our history and I think to remember, never forget. “
Historian Pillarella says more work needs to be done.
“Our work is not finished. We have a responsibility to tell their stories. The children of the internees are the living link to this event. Here in North Bay, you have already started the next chapter with this ceremony,” Pillarella stated.
“It acknowledges the positive legacy of Italian Canadians here in North Bay and this Memorial Stone will link all our lives together forever
Other guests included the Nipissing-Timiskaming MP Anthony Rota, Nipissing MPP Victor Fedeli, as well as North Bay Mayor Al McDonald.