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     The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold

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World War Two and Italian Internment

On June 10, 1940 Italy declared war on Canada.  That same evening, Canada's Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, in a radio broadcast announced that he had ordered the internment of hundreds of Italian Canadians that were identified by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as enemy aliens.  The order was applied to Italians who became British subjects after September 1, 1922.  In so doing, King appealed to that section of the War Measures Act known as the Defence of Canada Regulations which stipulated that the government is authorized to take the necessary precautions to safeguard the country from internal enemies.  Along with the setting up of a judicial mechanism to administer internment proceedings, the government also passed an order-in-council which called for the registration of all persons of Italian birth.  Furthermore, the Office of the Custodian of Alien Property was authorized to confiscate the properties of enemy aliens.

The chain of events that followed King's announcement, constitute one of the most dramatic, and perhaps saddest chapters in the annals of Italian Canadian history.  Swiftly, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cast its net over a bewildered populace.  A student of the internment saga noted that "it was not uncommon to witness women and children crying and screaming at the sight of their husbands or fathers being handcuffed and led away by the police." 

It was alleged that the names of many of those rounded up were indiscriminately culled from the guest book of Toronto's Casa d'Italia.  Were all those who registered in the guest book ardent supporters of fascism?  Did they constitute a threat to the security of the Canadian State?  The answer to both is a flat, unequivocal no! Nonetheless, raison d'etat triumphed over reason...

To add to their burgeoning woes, Italians were penalized financially.  A spontaneous general boycott of Italian businesses took place throughout Canada and provincial governments ordered municipalities to terminate relief payments to non-naturalized Italians.

The round up of Italian Canadians was virtually completed by October of 1940.  Most of them were sent to Camp Petawawa situated in the Ottawa River Valley.  It is difficult to establish just exactly how many Italian Canadians were interned...

In Winnipeg, Italians may not have suffered the same degree of hostility as did their counterparts in Toronto and Montreal, but they were subjected to the close scrutiny of the RCMP, to whom they had to report on a monthly basis.  Relief payments were suspended, and in some cases travel restrictions were imposed.  Activities such as the teaching of the Italian language, and meetings of the Roma Society were declared illegal.  These actions added to the psychological scars inflicted by constant harassment and ridicule from neighbours and co-workers, and the fear mongering being perpetrated by some elected officials...

Yet, through it all, most Winnipeg Italians put on brave faces and continued their daily lives with patience and strength of character.  Hundreds were to enlist in the Canadian armed forces, some in a desperate attempt to remove the stigma associated with the label enemy alien, while others because of the inexorable conviction that the war against the twin evils of fascism and nazism was justified. 

Reprinted from The Streets Were Not Paved With Gold: A Social History of Italians in Winnipeg by Stanislao Carbone, with permission from the author..

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