By Tessa Clayton
The date June 10, 1940 is not one that registers in many Canadians’ minds. But the significance of the day is apparent to those of Italian heritage who on that day were deemed a threat to this country.
Italy had just announced it was joining the Axis countries during the Second World War, resulting in the Canadian government authorizing the RCMP to intern Italian Canadians, just as they had the Japanese.
Anne Gagliani’s parents were among those who were considered “enemy aliens,” even though her mother was Canadian. Gagliani’s father, Luigi, emigrated directly to Trail from Italy in 1927. Italians had to report to the government every month and that time period became tough for families, some which lived in Trail.
“I didn’t really feel very different but as far as jobs went and what people thought of the Italians in those days — we were the enemy, we weren’t thought of very well and were called every name under the sun,” she said.
“To survive and keep going they (the Italians) stuck together pretty well. My dad used to say that Colombo Lodge was his haven, his support system … that was where your friends were, where you spoke your own language, kept your own customs and ate the food you liked, it kept him going.”
Ray Tenisci’s father, Fioravante — or Fred, as he was known in the community — was one of over 700 Italians who were sent to Camp Petawawa in the Ottawa River Valley.
He was also one of the few who spent the rest of the war in the camp.
Tenisci wasn’t born yet — in fact, his parents weren’t even married — but he said he remembers his father speaking about the experience and what he learned.
“He told me that when you’re put in a situation like this, you do the best you can and you don’t harbor prejudice against other people — you accept the fact that they’ve made the decision,” recalled Tenisci.
“He loved Canada and said that if the Canadian government does this, you’ve gotta follow them and abide by the rules in your country.”
Tenisci figures his dad — also a Canadian citizen and prominent member of the community — was interned because he was a member of the Union of Young Fascists back in Italy and contributed to a monthly fascist newspaper in Trail.
“I remember I was just a little kid and they (the RCMP) came and got him and took him to a camp,” said Gagliani. “I was so upset about it because he was such a well-known man and well-liked person that I just couldn’t understand it.”
“All the Italians and even the English people in Trail were just aghast, he was such a good citizen, so they wrote all these letters … saying what a good person he was; from the head of Cominco, his shift boss, the Catholic priest in Trail, some from alderman and mayors,” said Tenisci.
Despite the bitterness that his father could have harbored against the government, Tenisci said his dad never had any hard feelings. He always said he was well-treated and never had anything negative to say about the government and its attitude toward him.
A private member’s bill was introduced in Parliament in 2005 that called for recognition and restitution by the Canadian government in regards to the Italian internment but has not been passed as of yet. An online exhibit of video histories about the event will eventually be available from the Columbus Centre in Toronto, Ont.
“It is history and it should be known, it should be told, but I don’t know if everybody’s willing to talk about it, how many people are left who would talk about it,” said Gagliani. “There was a lot of discrimination in the 1940s but that’s long forgotten, people don’t remember those times.”
Tenisci agrees that the time period is sensitive, but that it’s an important piece of history.
“We do things in times of war and we do panic a lot and it’s a lesson to be learned from. You have to learn from your mistakes in the past, that this shouldn’t happen.”