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Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Italian Canadian Internment in the Second World War

By Pamela Hickman and Jean Smith Cavalluzzo

Review By Stephen Fielding

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 234-235

This book is part of the Canadian Government’s “Community Historical Recognition Program” (CHRP), a five-year effort to revisit uncomfortable moments in its past. It re-examines the experiences of so-called Italian enemy aliens during the Second World War. The authors draw from a broad range of primary sources. Their use of images is so extensive and orderly that the reader can follow the story apart from the written narrative. There also is an interactive website with personal interviews and video footage, ideal for the grades 8 through 12 readership.

Chapters 1 and 2 tell the Italian migrant story by weaving together conditions in turn-of-the-century Italy, oceanic voyages, resettlement, early community life in Canada, and surviving connections between Canada and the Italian peninsula. At each stage, Italian arrivals were targets of exploitation — from their padroni farm “masters” in Italy to padroni employment brokers in Canada. They were second-class citizens in Canada’s social “northern exposure” that preferred arrivals from northern and western Europe. The country’s Italian population — some 100,000 in 1930 — found respite from cultural dislocation and hard labour in the “four f’s” of family, faith, food, and festivals. Chapter 3 charts the rise of fascism during the 1930s, showing how Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, and the public backlash that followed, prompted most Italian Canadians to abandon ties with Il Duce and a sizeable minority of 3,000 to maintain their fealty (48).

Chapter 4 paints Italian Canadians as loyal wartime subjects. We find them buying Victory Bonds, planting victory gardens, enlisting for Canadian military service, and making public pledges of allegiance to the Crown. It is a powerful juxtaposition to what follows in Chapters 5 and 6, where Italy joins Nazi Germany against Canada and its Allies. The RCMP rounds up some 600 Italian Canadians and sends them to camps in Alberta, Ontario, and New Brunswick. None are formally charged. Moving images, oral testimonies, and letter excerpts capture the raids and dislocation that followed. In a powerful example, a man is led away in handcuffs while (his?) children run behind. At times, the authors suggest these were concentration, rather than internment, camps by emphasizing the shooting targets on prisoners’ backs and the ubiquitous barbed wire. Elsewhere we find a more nuanced picture, with men firing the kitchen staff and replacing them with Italian cooks (77), or with the internee whose pasta company supplied the camps while he himself was under watch (89). Chapters 7 and 8 show the financial and emotional strain placed on prisoners’ families, and Chapter 9 is a fascinating walk through the process of historical redress and its multiple iterations.

I have a few qualms. A promotional farming pamphlet, reproduced here, asserts that “many were attracted” by the offer (21). In reality, the number of Italian agricultural migrants was scant. Kananaskis is in Alberta, not British Columbia (68). And a picture of Toronto’s Little Italy from the 1970s illustrates a section about the 1930s (37). More troubling is the authors’ use of “racism” to explain the mistreatment of Italian Canadians. The term also features in the official press release (“how prejudice and racism set the stage for interment”). It implies that Canadian society understood there to be an Italian race in the 1940s and that Italians were not considered white. I am aware of no academic work that takes either position for this period. Italian Canadians were certainly victims of discrimination and prejudice, but “racism” seems misguided. The book and series title, Righting Canada’s Wrongs, is similarly problematic. The notion of righting something is awkward. We can’t fix the past, but it is possible to visit and address it in a sensitive manner. The book accomplishes this feat wonderfully; the title should better reflect this.

Righting Canada’s Wrongs: Italian Canadian Internment in the Second World War
By Pamela Hickman and Jean Smith Cavalluzzo 
Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2012. 111 pp. $34.95 cloth.