Daughter of Italian-Canadian interned during WWII says Trudeau apology ends
Joan Vistarchi stands outside the house built by her father in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood of western Montreal.
In front of her, on the patio table, hand-carved hearts and boats, love letters to his mother, and black-and-white photographs of a man in a well-cut suit. The memories are all of his father, Salvatore Vistarchi, who spent nearly three years in two internment camps on Canadian soil.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is due to issue a formal apology Thursday for the internment of Italian Canadians during World War II. Of the 600 people interned, more than 200 were arrested in Montreal.
“For too long, the Italian-Canadian community carried the brunt of the unfair internment policy during World War II,” Trudeau said in a recent statement.
None of the internees are alive today to hear the apology, but Joan Vistarchi and the other descendants are listening.
Ottawa moved quickly to make arrests
On June 10, 1940, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini declared war on Britain and France, causing Canada – part of the British Empire – to declare war on Italy the same day.
Within hours, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King invoked the War Measures Act, suspending the right to a fair trial. The Canadian government then qualified 31,000 Italian-Canadians as “enemy aliens”. The RCMP acted quickly, making arrests based on lists of suspected fascist sympathizers provided by informants.
Salvatore Vistarchi had just asked Jean Reddy to marry him. After dropping off his fiancée at her apartment, he returned home to sleep. Later that night, there was a knock on the door.
“The RCMP arrested him without ever explaining why,” said Joan, who maintains that her father was never involved in fascism.
“He had a feeling about someone pointing the finger at him, and he was very upset about it.”
Vistarchi spent the night in an overcrowded cell at Montreal’s Little Italy police station. He was then put on a train to Fredericton, where he was briefly detained, before landing at Camp 33, an internment camp in Petawawa, Ontario, located in the Ottawa Valley.
Imprisonment in Petawawa
Vistarchi received a blue jumpsuit with large red circles on the front and back. If he ran, the guards wouldn’t miss the shot.
By day, most of the internees repaired roads and bridges or cut planks. Vistarchi, who had medical training, worked at the camp’s military hospital.
At night, the men worked on woodcarvings and sang Italian operas like those by Puccini Turandot, told Nicholas Di Pietro, descendant of two internees.
The prisoners ranged from workers to lawyers. Those close to Di Pietro owned a high-end shoe factory, which in 1937 made a pair of jeweled shoes for the Queen – wife of King George VI and mother of current Queen Elizabeth.
The internees wrote letters at home with stationery provided by the government. Postcards stamped “PRISONER OF WAR MAIL” were limited to seven lines, letters to 21.
In every letter Vistarchi sent to his fiancee, he included the same lines: I don’t know why I am here. I am a good citizen. I don’t know if and when I will be released. What did I do wrong? I like this country. Justice will triumph.
Joyce Pillarella, oral historian in Montreal whose grandfather was interned, has spent more than 20 years telling the stories of the families of internees.
In the 1930s, Italian-Canadians were to “play ball” with the Italian government, she told CBC News. Restaurateurs had to maintain a close relationship with the Italian consulate if they wanted to import wine or oil, for example.
The ex-combatants were to receive their pensions through the consulate, she said, and informants used photographs of community members with Italian officials at banquets in Montreal to prove “close contact” with the fascist regime.
“You are not going to sound anti-fascist because you have business to do,” Pillarella said.
Evidence of their relationship with Italian authorities placed these men on the suspect list.
“Anyone who is a representative of the Italian government in the 1930s represents a government that is a fascist regime,” she said.
Montreal by Mussolini
Filippo Salvatore, professor emeritus of classical and modern languages at Concordia University in Montreal, said there was powerful symbolism in the apology made in the House of Commons – because this is where the charges were laid against the Italian community over 80 years ago.
“Canadians did not distinguish between being fascist and Italian,” he said.
In his book, Fascism and the Italians of Montreal, Salvatore traces Quebec’s initial enthusiasm for Mussolini, “the man sent by Divine Providence to save Italy”, during the interwar period. Those in the province who supported the dictator included the government, prominent politicians, the Roman Catholic Church and the French media.
WATCH | Daughter of a prisoner in the internment camp apologizing to Italian Canadians:
Ottawa, including King, had a positive view of Mussolini in the early 1930s. The real enemy of Western democracy at that time was considered communism.
In Montreal, a mural of Mussollini on horseback was commissioned from Notre-Dame de La Difesa, a Catholic church in Little Italy. Pro-fascist newspapers circulated. The community center, Casa d’Italia, was built with the support of the director of Italian fasci abroad. When Mussolini’s second in command, Italo Balbo, crossed the Atlantic aboard 24 “flying ships” in 1933, nearly 50,000 people traveled to Longueuil, Quebec, to watch the show.
“Fascism was the official jargon at the time,” Salvatore said. “He was sanctioned at all levels.”
The conquest of Ethiopia by Mussolini in 1936 marked a turning point in Quebec public opinion, especially in the English press. The dictator’s reputation continued to worsen after Italy’s participation in the Spanish Civil War and the signing of the Pact of Steel with Adolf Hitler in 1939.
When Italy declared war, Salvatore said, there was “hysteria” in the Canadian Parliament over fear of what is called a Fifth Column, where an organized group is trying to undermine a country for the sake of it. ‘an external enemy.
“Canadians of Italian descent were not a threat to Canada,” he said. “No act of terrorism has ever been committed by those arrested.”
Back to home
Vistarchi spent 33 months in prison. Upon his release, he received a backpack and a train ticket.
He then founded his own construction company and became a well-known philanthropist in Montreal.
Joan, her parents’ only child, described Vistarchi as a jovial man “who had a joke for everyone”.
But she says he never spoke much about his imprisonment for fear of being re-interned.
“Every June 10 he had become dead,” she said.
“The apologies are really important. It’s the opposite of what happened in 1940, because then they had no voice. It’s moral justice.”
She said she was not interested in financial compensation from the federal government.
“The biggest compensation is these apologies,” she said. “The apology ends all families by saying these men weren’t guilty of anything.
“My father’s ears would have loved to hear that.”