Article excerpt

Internment of Italians reflects broad cultural intolerance

The internment of Italian-Canadians is a dark stain on Canada's multicultural history. Though many are familiar with the injustices of the Second World War, few recognize the magnitude of the cultural intolerance that existed during those years. This is the story of one of those injustices.

After the First World War, fascism was on the rise in Europe. As the alliance between Mussolini and Adolf Hitler grew, so did the fear of their British adversaries. Consequently, Canadians felt the same suspicions and fears as their British partners. As suspicions grew, so did the intolerance of immigrants in Canada. Italians in Winnipeg became targets for suspicion and surveillance. In the years leading up to the Second World War, many Italian businesses were boycotted, Casa D'Italias were closed, meetings of groups such as the Sons of Italy were prohibited and church festivals outlawed. Italians became guilty by virtue of culture rather than crime.

On June 10, 1940, Canada declared war on Italy. Prime Minister Mackenzie King ordered the arrest and internment of any Italian who was suspected of sabotage or questionable activities. The prime minister used the War Measures Act of 1914 to suspend the civil liberties of Italian citizens.

As a result, between 600 and 700 Italians were arrested and detained in camps in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. Upon arrival, Italians were given a navy-blue uniform with a red stripe along the side and a red circle on the back. The purpose of this target was to give the guards a place to shoot should an individual try to escape. While in the camps, many internees had their bank accounts looted, businesses closed and families abandoned. They were given inadequate living conditions and forced to work for 25 cents a day.

Italians in Winnipeg faced a different kind of oppression from their non-Italian counterparts. Many Italians remained socially connected through Holy Rosary Parish and organizations such as Italian language school and the Roma Mutual Benevolent Society. However, with the onset of war, many organizations were forced to abandon any ties to Italy and pledge their allegiance to Canada. Despite their efforts, Italians faced restrictions on travel, a loss of relief payments and were often subject to intense scrutiny by the RCMP. This scrutiny required Italians to report to the RCMP on a monthly basis. These experiences varied from basic dialogue to extensive interrogations. The oppression continued as Italians were prohibited from speaking their language and meetings of groups such as the Roma Society were forbidden. Although Italians in Winnipeg were not taken to the internment camps, the prejudice and restrictions they faced during the war were discriminatory, restrictive and unjustified. Many Italians carried around the scars of this period for the rest of their lives.

Tommaso Romeo was one of these people. Born in Amato, Calabria, Tommaso came to Winnipeg in 1924. After an exhausting journey overseas, Tommaso arrived in Winnipeg and found work at the CN Rail shops. Despite his invitation to Canada, Tommaso often felt like a second-class citizen in the country he intended to make his home. …