Joyce Pillarella is pictured at her home in Montreal on Friday, May 21, 2021. After decades of digging in archival material and talking with the families of Italian Canadians who were interned during the Second World War, Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella says Canada’s long-awaited apology for the internment gives her family and other families the moral justice they have been waiting for. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Joyce Pillarella is pictured at her home in Montreal on Friday, May 21, 2021. After decades of digging in archival material and talking with the families of Italian Canadians who were interned during the Second World War, Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella says Canada’s long-awaited apology for the internment gives her family and other families the moral justice they have been waiting for. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Canadians of Italian origin find justice in apology for internment during WW2

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to deliver a formal apology in the House of Commons Thursday

After decades of digging through archival material and talking with the relatives of people of Italian origin detained in Canada during the Second World War, Montreal historian Joyce Pillarella says Canada’s long-awaited apology gives her family and others the moral justice they have been waiting for.

Pillarella started learning more than 20 years ago about the struggles of the more than 600 people who were interned when she found a postcard sent from her grandfather who was confined at a camp near Fredericton, N.B.

She then started combing through Canada’s national archive before she started talking to the families of those affected.

“When I was starting to do cold calls to try to find families, a lot of people didn’t want to talk to me,” she said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“What I realize now is that they didn’t want to talk because they felt insignificant, their story was insignificant. They were afraid of being judged wrongly. There was the shame of the story.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is set to deliver a formal apology in the House of Commons Thursday for the internment of Canadians of Italian background during the Second World War for several years at three camps in Petawawa, Ont., Minto, N.B., and Kananaskis, Alta. The apology is not expected to come with individual compensation.

Justice Minister David Lametti, the first Canadian justice minister of Italian heritage, said the internment happened following an order-in-council that was promulgated by the then-justice minister Ernest Lapointe, and it resulted in taking hundreds of people of Italian origin from their families and declaring about 31,000 as “enemy aliens.”

“Not a single person was ever convicted, and in addition, people weren’t afforded due process,” he said in an interview.

“There wasn’t anything other than the fact that their name may have appeared on a list somewhere.”

Pillarella said the Canadian government asked the RCMP to prepare lists of Canadians of Italian heritage after Italy invaded Ethiopia in the mid-1930s.

She said Italian-Canadians had to do a lot of their business through the Italian consulates at the time.

“People had to be sympathetic with the consulate or at least appear to be, because otherwise they’re not going to get anything done,” she said.

Lametti said people were put on RCMP lists for having made donations to the Italian Red Cross or for being members of certain labour groups.

“It is true that the Fascist Party did have organizations in Canada but, in the 1930s, they were popular,” he said. “It didn’t mean that people were disloyal to Canada. In fact, Italian-Canadians generally were very much disappointed when Italy joined Germany in that war effort.”

Joan Vistarchi, whose father Salvatore Vistarchi was interned between June 1940 and March 1943, said the RCMP arrested her father in his Montreal apartment without giving him any reason.

“He was put on a train, and he didn’t know where he was going. Nobody would say where they were going, but he ended up in the Fredericton internment camp in New Brunswick,” she said.

Vistarchi noticed as a child her father would remain very silent on June 10 every year. She asked her mother what was wrong with her dad but her mother would wave it off by saying, “I just don’t think he’s feeling well today.”

When Vistarchi became a teenager, she learned that her father’s sadness on June 10 was because he was detained on that day.

“It was kept pretty silent for a long, long time, and then, only little pieces came out,” she said. “To his dying day, (my father) wondered why was he imprisoned or put in an internment camp.”

Pillarella contacted some 150 families across Canada to collect the stories of the people who were interned during the war.

She said the suffering of the women and the children left behind could be even greater than that of the men who were detained in internment camps.

“For the women in the 1940s, there were big families usually, I mean it was common (to have) six, seven, eight children. The breadwinner was gone,” she said. “Taking care of a household in the 1940s was a big, big job. … It’s not like today where we have appliances.”

She said families of Italian origin were stigmatized as “state enemies” and had to battle to survive as kids had to get pulled out of school, and women ended up finding domestic work on top of taking care of their big families.

“People didn’t want to hire Italians. They didn’t want to rent to Italians,” she said. “There were people that were afraid to help (Italian-Canadians) because they thought ‘Oh my god, the RCMP is watching. My husband’s gonna get interned also.”

Cinna Faveri said her father, Rev. Libero Sauro, was interned in September 1940 and was released in December of the same year. Four of his seven sons were serving in the Canadian military at the time.

Two of her brothers were airmen serving in England, and another one was a signalman fighting in Italy and Holland, she said.

She said her family, unlike most in the Italian community in Canada, was comfortable talking about what happened.

“Whenever I mentioned it to anybody, my close friends, my new friends, anybody, they’re shocked,” she said.

“They don’t know it. Nobody knows about it.”

Lametti said it’s critical to share the stories of these families through commemoration and education.

“We’re sorry,” he said, adding his message to families was “as your parents made sure that this stood as something that would make you better Canadians, we’re hoping to tell your story, so that all Canadians can be better.”

Faveri said the apology is necessary even if it’s too late.

“It’s far too late in coming. But, because for historical reasons, it has to come, even if it’s late.”

Vistarchi said the apology is important because the names of people who were interned are going to be cleared, and the descendants will be given some kind of closure.

“However, I really feel in my heart of hearts, as much as I really am grateful for this apology, that it would have been nice if one, at least one, of these internees had been alive to hear this. They’re all dead,” she said.

“Those are the ears that should have heard this apology.”

Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Just Posted

Sasha Perron of Langford is preparing to run a half marathon on Saturday, 10 kilometres Sunday, 21.5 km on Tuesday and so on until he’s totalled 216 kilometres. (Jake Romphf/News Staff)
Indigenous man to run 215 kilometres, plus one for children waiting to be found

Donations to Sasha Perron’s fundraiser to benefit Indian Residential School Survivors Society

Saanich Neighbourhood Place is hoping to open the doors to its new centre in July, pending final council approval. (Black Press Media file photo)
Saanich childcare agency awaits final approval on much-needed new facility

Saanich Neighbourhood Place keen to open new centre this summer, expand options for community

A patio built by The Village is shared by three eateries in Estevan. (Christine van Reeuwyk/News Staff)
Oak Bay eateries sharing communal patio space in Estevan Village

The Village invested $25,000 in streetside patio, hopes to make it permanent

An SUV sits where it crashed through the front window of the 2:18 Run store in Fairfield Plaza, after the driver appeared to lose control on Monday afternoon. (Photo by Phil Nicholls)
Driver crashes through front window of Victoria running store in Fairfield

Phil Nicholls of 2:18 Run said crash sounded like an earthquake at first

Processed sewage is still being deposited at the Hartland landfill rather than sent as biosolids to a Richmond cement plant. (Black Press Media file photo)
Biosolids at Hartland still being placed on landfill in Saanich

Richmond cement plant up and running, but CRD end product not suitable for purpose

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

Neighbours fight a small late-night bush fire with garden hoses and shovels in Cinnabar Valley on June 5. They couldn’t get help from local fire services because the fire was located in an area under B.C. Wildfire Services jurisdiction. (Photo courtesy Muriel Wells)
Neighbours on edge of Nanaimo city limits left to put out bush fire themselves

Cinnabar Valley residents tackle fire with hoses and buckets for two and a half hours

Darren Campbell’s truck (pictured) was stolen when he stopped to check on a car in a ditch on Cowichan Bay Road on Monday morning. (Facebook photo)
Vancouver Island Good Samaritan’s truck stolen in nasty trick

‘Try to be a Good Samaritan and my $20,000 truck gets stolen right under my nose’

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Creative handmade signs abound at the June 13 Tofino rally for old growth trees. (Nora O’Malley photo)
VIDEO: Tofino stands in solidarity for Fairy Creek Blockades

Over 150 supporters attend rally hosted by Friends of Clayoquot Sound

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

Most Read