Daughter of Italian-Canadian interned during WWII says Trudeau’s apology brings closure


Joan Vistarchi stands outside the home built by her father in Montreal’s west-end Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood.

In front of her on the patio table are hand-carved hearts and boats, love letters addressed to her mother and black-and-white photographs of a man in well-cut suits. The mementos are all from her father, Salvatore Vistarchi, who spent nearly three years in two internment camps on Canadian soil.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is to issue a formal apology on Thursday for the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War. Of the 600 people interned, more than 200 were arrested in Montreal.

“For far too long, the Italian-Canadian community has carried the weight of the unjust policy of internment during the Second World War,” 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 against Britain and France, leading Canada — as part of the British Empire — to declare war against Italy on 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 labelled 31,000 Italian-Canadians “enemy aliens.” The RCMP moved swiftly, making arrests according to lists of suspected fascist sympathizers supplied by informants.

Salvatore Vistarchi had just asked Jean Reddy to marry him. After he dropped off his fiancée at her apartment, he went back to his home to sleep. Later that night, there was a knock at the door.

Joan Vistarchi, who lives with her husband in the Montreal house built by her father, says if he were still alive, he would have ‘loved to hear’ his name cleared by the prime minister in an apology. (Fenn Mayes/CBC)

“The RCMP arrested him without ever giving a reason why,” said Joan, who maintains her father was never involved with fascism.

“He did have a feeling about someone who pointed his finger at him, and he was very upset about it.”

Vistarchi spent the night in an overcrowded cell at the police station in Montreal’s Little Italy. He was then put on a train to Fredericton, where he was briefly detained, before eventually landing at Camp 33, an internment camp in Petawawa, Ont., located in the Ottawa Valley.

Imprisonment in Petawawa

Vistarchi was handed a blue jumpsuit with big red circles on the front and back. If he ran, the guards wouldn’t miss the shot.

By day, most internees repaired roads and bridges or cut planks. Vistarchi, who had medical training, worked in the camp’s military hospital.

A box of letters and wooden boats and boxes carved by her father while he was interned in Petawawa, Ont., are displayed at Joan Vistarchi’s Montreal home. After working during the day, interned Italian-Canadians would sing and carve wooden objects. (Fenn Mayes/CBC)

By night, the men worked on wood carvings and sang Italian operas like Puccini’s Turandot, recounted Nicholas Di Pietro, a descendant of two internees.

The prisoners ranged from labourers to lawyers. Di Pietro’s relatives owned a high-end shoe factory that in 1937 made a bejeweled pair of shoes for the Queen — wife of King George VI and mother of the current Queen Elizabeth.

The internees wrote letters home with stationery supplied by the government. Postcards stamped “PRISONER OF WAR MAIL” were restricted to seven lines, letters to 21.

In every letter Vistarchi sent his fiancée, he included the same lines: I don’t know why I’m here. I’m a good citizen. I don’t know if and when I’ll be released. What did I do wrong? I love this country. Justice will prevail.

Letters sent by Vistarchi to Reddy, his then-fiancée, while he was interned. (Fenn Mayes/CBC)

Joyce Pillarella, an oral historian in Montreal whose grandfather was interned, spent more than 20 years chronicling the stories from families of the internees.

In the 1930s, Italian-Canadians had to “play ball” with the Italian government, she told CBC News. Restaurant owners needed to maintain a close relationship with the Italian Consulate if they wanted to import wine or oil, for example.

War veterans had to collect their pension through the consulate, she said, and informants used photographs of community members with Italian officials at Montreal banquets to prove “close contact” with the fascist regime.

“You’re not going to appear to be anti-fascist because you’ve got business to do,” Pillarella said.

Evidence of their relationship with Italian officials put these men on the suspect list.

“Anybody who is a representative of the Italian government in the 1930s is representing a government that is a fascist regime,” she said.

Mussolini’s Montreal

Filippo Salvatore, professor emeritus of classics and modern languages at Concordia University in Montreal, said there’s powerful symbolism in the apology being delivered in the House of Commons — since it’s the very spot where accusations were made against the Italian community more than 80 years ago.

“Canadians did not distinguish between being fascist and being Italian,” he said.

In his book, Fascism and the Italians of Montreal, Salvatore traces Quebec’s initial infatuation with Mussolini, “the man sent by Divine Providence to save Italy,” during the interwar years. Those in the province who supported the dictator included the government, prominent politicians, the Roman Catholic Church and the French media.

WATCH | Daughter of internment camp prisoner on apology to Italian Canadians:

Joan Vistarchi’s father spent nearly three years in an internment camp on Canadian soil without knowing why. She shares her father’s story, the impact it had on his life and the importance of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s apology. 8:12

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 communism.

In Montreal, a fresco of Mussollini on horseback was commissioned in Our Lady of La Difesa, a Catholic church in Little Italy. Pro-fascist newspapers circulated. The community centre, Casa d’Italia, was built with support from the director of Italian fasci abroad. When Mussolini’s second-in-command, Italo Balbo, crossed the Atlantic in 24 “flying ships” in 1933, nearly 50,000 people came out to Longueuil, Que., to watch the spectacle.

“Fascism was the official lingo at the time,” Salvatore said. “It was sanctioned at every level.”

Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936 was a turning point of public opinion in Quebec, particularly in the English press. The dictator’s reputation continued to worsen after Italy’s hand 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 Canada’s Parliament over fear of what’s known as a fifth column, where an organized group tries to undermine a country in favour of an outside enemy.

“Canadians of Italian origin were not a threat to Canada,” he said. “No acts of terrorism were ever committed by the people that were arrested.”

Vistarchi and Reddy share their first dinner together after his release. (Submitted by Joan Vistarchi)

The return home

Vistarchi spent 33 months in prison. Upon release, he was given a haversack and a train ticket.

He went on to start his own construction company and become 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 of his imprisonment for fear of being re-interned.

“Every 10th of June, he’d become a dead person,” she said.

“The apology is really important. It’s the opposite of what happened in 1940, because then they didn’t have a voice. This is moral justice.”

She said she isn’t interested in financial compensation from the federal government.

“The biggest compensation is this apology,” she said. “The apology brings closure to all the families by saying these men were not guilty of anything.

“My father’s ears would have loved to hear this.”

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