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Federal government to issue apology to families of interned Italian-Canadians in WWII

Credit: Joyce Pillarella Collection

MONTREAL (CityNews) — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will issue a formal apology this month to the families of Italian-Canadians placed in interment camps during World War II.

Roughly 600 men were interned in camps in Canada in 1940 after Italy joined Axis power Germany.

The family members of those internees say the formal apology from the Canadian government will act as a moment of healing.

“The apology is important because it tells the families that somebody listened to their stories and that their life experiences mattered,” said historian Joyce Pillarella, the granddaughter of an internee. “Also the fact that they were able to tell these stories, they were finally able to do something for their parents that they could not have done back in 1940.

“It took a lot of courage for these families to speak because they didn’t want to be judged. They were afraid, they were shamed.”

WATCH: Ottawa to issue apology to interned Italian-Canadians (May 3, 2021)

When the federal government enacted the War Measures Act during the Second World War, some 31,000 Italian-Canadians were considered enemy aliens — a term used to describe people living in Canada whose countries of origin were at war with Canada.

Of those 31,000, roughly 600 men were placed into three camps in Alberta, Ontario and New Brunswick. Those men were suspected of being fascist sympathizers or believed to be directly involved in fascist organizations.

Pillarella has been collecting stories from the families of internees for more than 30 years.

“It removes that stigma that they had either as prisoner of war or enemy aliens,” she said. “And it goes toward showing people that these families, we’ve always been good Canadian citizens and we’ve loved this country. And right now this apology is just about that.”

Nick Di Pietro, the son of an internee, remembers growing up in a household where no one would talk about the internment camps for fear of shame and judgement.

Di Pietro recalls his father lying during job interviews about what he had been doing for two years.

“People would ask in the interview, ‘so what happened during these two years, what were you doing?’ Now he had to find a way to camouflage what had happened. Without lying he would say, ‘I took courses, I was not able to work, I was unwell.’

“It wasn’t very pleasant. And my poor father tried to bury the story as much as possible.”

With the imminent apology from the Trudeau government, the families are feeling grateful Canada is acknowledging that moment in the country’s history.

“There’s a conclusion to it but the sad part for me is that the children have been the disappearing layer of this story,” said Pillarella. “So it’s sad because there’s a lot of people I wish were here to be part of this event.”

Di Pietro believes the apology would have meant a lot to his father.

“My dad, he would’ve been pleased,” he said. “He’s not the type that would have had a big party or anything. My uncle might have, he died in ’94. He would have probably played his harmonica and had a big glass of wine and had a few friends over.

“But no, they would’ve kept it pretty much in their heart.”