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Daughter of Italian-Canadian interned during WWII says Trudeau apology leads to closure

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. Joan Vistarchi, who lives with her husband in the Montreal house built by his father, says if he was still alive he would have “loved to hear” his name cleared by the Prime Minister in his apology. (Fenn Mayes / CBC) “The RCMP arrested him without ever explaining why,” said Joan, who maintains that his father was never involved in fascism. “He had a feeling about someone who pointed it out, and he was very upset about it. “Vistarchi spent the night in a crowded cell at the Little Italy police station in Montreal. 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 at Petawawa Vistarchi was given a blue jumpsuit with large red circles on the front and back. If he ran, the guards would not miss the shot. By day, most of the internees repaired roads and bridges or cut planks. Vistarchi, who had medical training, worked at the military hospital in the camp. A letterbox, boats and wooden boxes carved by his father alor s that he was interned in Petawawa, Ontario, are on display at Joan Vistarchi’s home in Montreal. After working during the day, the interned Italo-Canadians sang and carved wooden objects. (Fenn Mayes / CBC) At night, the men worked on woodcarvings and sang Italian operas like Puccini’s Turandot, said Nicholas Di Pietro, a 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 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’m 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. Letters Vistarchi sent to his then-fiancée Reddy while interned (Fenn Mayes / CBC) Joyce Pillarella, an oral historian in Montreal whose grandfather was interned, has spent more than 20 years recounting 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. Filippo Salvatore de Mussolini in Montreal, professor emeritus of classics and modern languages ​​at Concordia University in Montreal, said there was a powerful symbolism in the apology presented in the House of Commons – because this is where Charges have been brought against the Italian community for over 80 years since. “Canadians did not distinguish between being fascist and Italian,” he said. In his book, Le fascisme et les Italiens de Montréal, Salvatore traces Quebec’s initial infatuation with 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 an internment camp prisoner 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 seen as the communism. In Montreal, a mural of Mussolini 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, particularly 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, he There was “hysteria” in the Canadian Parliament for fear of what is called a Fifth Column, where an organized group attempts to undermine a country for the benefit of an outside enemy. “Canadians of Italian descent were not a threat to Canada,” he said. “No act of terrorism has ever been committed by those arrested.” Vistarchi and Reddy share their first dinner together after his release. (Submitted by Joan Vistarchi) Coming 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 saying these men weren’t guilty of anything.” My father’s ears would have loved to hear that. “

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