Lamentable Internment of Italian Canadians by Mark Thompson

The Globe and Mail, Saturday, April 9, 1994  C19 Review of Books

“The Lamentable Internment Of Italian Canadians” by Mark Thompson

The City Without Women, A Chronicle of Internment Life in Canada during World War II by Mario Duliani, Translated and with an essay by Antonino Mazza. Mosaic Press, 157 pages, $14.95

What if Canada went to war against Britain? Would our government designate all new Canadians of British ancestry “enemy aliens”? Could such British Canadians be trusted to do the right thing, to defend our dominion? Or would we be justified in suspending their civil liberties, photographing them, fingerprinting them, insisting that they report their movements to the RCMP? Should we, arbitrarily, arrest white Anglo-Saxon males, without warrants, and intern them indefinitely at Petawawa without laying charges? Just a thought – but such idle fantasies put in perspective Canada’s lamentable treatment of Canadians of  Italian descent during the Second World  War.

As Antonino Mazza points out in his excellent introduction to Mario Duliani’s The City Without Women, the mistreatment of Italian Canadians under the War Measures Act is far less well known than that of Japanese Canadians. Perhaps because Japanese Canadians are more visibly “other” than Italian Canadians, and because their wartime dislocation was greater, we have accorded their sufferings more attention. Wheras Brian Mulroney’s laudable but tendentious 1988 apology to Japanese Canadians accompanied a cash settlement, Italian Canadians got only an apology. This hardly compensates for the injustice against Duliani and his thousand fellow inmates – some of whom fought for Canada during the First World War. Mazza sets the Mulroney policy in the context of our governing class’s historical tactic of pitting minority against minority. Still, Mazza’s chief aim is to overcome Italian-Canadian reticence and bring to English-speaking Canada a work available only in French since 1945 and Italian since 1946.

Duliani, a Montreal writer and dramatist, labeled his book a “documentary novel.” He conflates events and impressions of life in two internment camps – Petawawa and another camp near Fredericton. This allows him to arrange the details of the narrative for maximum thematic effect while remaining true to actual occurrences.

For Duliani and his fellow prisoners. camp life, paradoxically, appears to protect them from the war and its attendant racist hysteria. In this dubious respite, inmates cope by reconstructing a semblance of their former lives. Every event, even boredom, speaks to the human capacity to adapt to unfamiliar environments.

Imprisonment, of course, reveals human nature under stress. Duliani, a keen observer, sees the distortions that occur in the behaviour of otherwise normal people.   Throughout his imprisonment he notes the parallel society that develops in his “city,” including a quasi-democratic organization with its (questionable) respect for human dignity. As a sign of how twisted his perspective becomes, Duliani writes of “maladjustments” in the city – as if state prisoners with bulls’ eyes on their uniforms can reasonably be expected to adjust. Theirs are inner journeys of unwelcome transformation.

Duliani is at his best when portraying the despair of  imprisonment in heartrendingly beautiful, natural surroundings. For many of the inmates the biggest problem is a terrible longing for women. Not so much for physical contact but for the comfort of their presence and love. For these men the indefinite nature of their confinement is toughest to bear since that prevents them from knowing when they can expect to be reunited with lovers and wives.

Yet the most arresting – and disquieting – feature of Duliani’s book is the tone. Instead of railing against the brutal suppression of human rights, the author’s voice speaks calmly, understandingly, of privation imposed hypocritically by his own government. For Duliani, a 40-month internment is neither a bitter humiliation nor cause for retribution: rather it is like a slightly annoying passage through customs: “But now that the inspection is over, now that it has been done thoroughly, how happy I am to move freely about, tiny valise in hand – no one has the right to suspect me any longer. My luggage contained absolutely nothing ‘prohibited, nothing that could have harmed the beautiful country that I love, which I am on the verge of adopting definitively as my own!”

While Mackenzie King’s rhetoric told of “a homeland where nationality means not domination and slavery, but equality and freedom,” such equality and freedom were denied to Canadian residents, ostensibly to combat Axis powers that did not share those values. The City Without Women reminds us forcefully, if ironically, how conditional are our rights as citizens, how hard-won, how fragile, and how easily lost without constant vigilance.

Mark Thompson is a Toronto writer.

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