Ordinary Lives

Ordinary Lives

Italian internment exhibit timely and relevant

Steady stream of visitors view exhibit at Trail library as display soon to be headed back East

Given the events of today, the exhibit showing at the Trail and District Public Library is both timely and relevant, says Karen McDonnell.

“With the arrival of Syrian refugees and the war of words regarding the Muslim community, I think it is important to remember where we were and where we need to be,” explained McDonnell, vice chair of the library board. “Those are events we should never allow to be repeated. Education is key and that is one of the mandates of a library.”

Up to 20 people a day made a visit to Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Times: Italian Canadian Internment Experience since it opened in January. Most were from the West Kootenay, though visitors from Washington State, Hungary and Brazil signed the visitors’ log, all giving the exhibit a thumbs up.

“I remember leaving the hockey game one night and the number of people who were looking at the exhibit, as well as looking at the THS (Trail Historical Society) exhibits, was great,” said McDonnell.

“We were a bit worried about leaving it open all the time, but I think that definitely provided a unique situation for those visiting Trail for whatever reason,” she added. “It was a bit of work (bringing in the exhibit) but the learning experiences provided for all age levels was terrific.”

The vice chair acknowledges that even though decades have passed, the Italian Canadian internment experience still evokes raw memories that are best left to rest for some, including one local family.

But overall, the on-loan exhibit from the Toronto Columbus Centre generated a favourable community buzz and sometimes bridged the gap between young and older Greater Trail citizens.

“I think those that visited were pleased they had come, it was information and for most,  an unknown piece of history,” McDonnell said.

“There were a number of school groups that viewed the exhibit and when the numbers required, Kathryn Foley (library director) and her staff helped with the students,” she added. “On at least one occasion Ray Tenisci came by to tell the students about his early life in Trail.”

Tenisci’s father, Fioravante (Fred) Tenisci was arrested and interned for three years at Petawawa before he returned to Trail, married and raised 10 children.

Another local person, Christine DeMarco, spoke with visiting community groups about the profound impact her grandfather’s internment had on the family, including the loss of cultural heritage.

DeMarco joined a group of Nelson retirees last Friday and shared her grandfather’s story.

“We did not grow up speaking Italian,” said DeMarco. “English was our first language spoken in the home, Italian accents faded and many in our community changed their names to sound more French or more English,” she explained. “This language suicide resulted in grandchildren who could no longer communicate with their grandparents.”

The audio visual exhibit, which includes a photo of DeMarco’s grandmother, is showing on the Red Floor in the Trail Memorial Centre until March 31.

“Every time I come to see the exhibit I learn something new,” said McDonnell. “There are always new insights and little stories that are shared.”

On June 10, 1940, RCMP and local authorities launched raids on certain homes labelled “fascist” the Canadian government claimed were threats to national security. Hundreds of Italian Canadians, including seven men from Trail, were arrested and held in prison or remote camps during the Second World War but no interned Italian was ever charged or convicted of a war-related crime.

For decades, little was known about this dark period of Canadian history. The primary reason being the interned men and their families chose to erase this episode of their lives and not speak about it privately or publicly.