New tour of Montreal's Stewart Museum highlights its use as a WW2 internment camp

For three years during the Second World War, the historic British fort that today houses Montreal's Stewart Museum was an internment camp for 400 Italians who had been living and working in the United Kingdom.

Historic fort was surrounded by barbed-wire fence, guard towers and protected by a giant steel door

The darker side of île Sainte-Hélène's history

1 year ago
During the Second World War, Île Sainte-Hélène served as an internment camp for hundreds of Italians. Montreal's Stewart Museum has prepared an exhibit to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. 1:00

Montreal's Stewart Museum will begin offering outdoor tours on Sept. 5 to show how the building was used during the Second World War.

Here is a story CBC Montreal did earlier this year about when the museum was an internment camp:

When Renato Gonnella died in Glasgow in December 2002, his son Ralph slipped into his casket the uniform he'd been forced to wear as a young man in his early 20s, when he was interned on Montreal's Île Sainte-Hélène.

For three years during the Second World War, the historic British fort that today houses Montreal's Stewart Museum was an internment camp for 400 Italians who had been living and working in the United Kingdom.

Picture it: guard towers. An immense steel door. And high above the fort, on the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, military guards observing the detainees' every move from their lookout post.

The Canadian government renamed the fort, which dates back to British colonial days, Camp 43. For the three years he lived there, from 1940 to 1943, Renato Gonnella was just a number: 179.

Renato "was arrested [for] the fact that he was an Italian citizen," his son told CBC from his home in Scotland.

Maryse Bédard, a Montreal historian who wrote her master's thesis on Camp 43, said that when Italy entered the war with Germany in June 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill lost no time. The very next day, Churchill ordered the mass arrest of Italians living in the U.K.

"There was the fear of the fifth column," Bédard said.

About 4,200 Italians were rounded up: the police showed up unannounced at their workplace and homes.

Renato had been born in Scotland to Italian parents, and although Ralph Gonnella said his father had "absolutely nothing" to do with Mussolini's Fascists, he was arrested in July 1940 and taken under armed guard to Liverpool.

From there, he and hundreds of other Italian men were shipped to Canada.

In the summer months, internees were made to garden on Round Island, which is now the location of the La Ronde amusement park. (Library Archives Canada)

Life in Camp 43

Renato's ship landed in Quebec City, where the military made them take cold showers and handed them their internment uniforms.

From Quebec City, they took a train to Montreal and a bus to Île Sainte-Hélène. Ralph says the camp wasn't prepared for their arrival, and they spent the first night sitting on the ground, without food or water.

"They were forbidden to speak, and if a man did so, he would be severely beaten," Ralph Gonnella wrote.

This photo of the fort on Ile Sainte-Hélène taken in 1950 shows what remained of the internment camp seven years after the men were released. (Archives de Montréal)

What really got to Renato weren't the conditions in the camp, his son said — it was being an ocean away from the war.

"They had left a homeland that was in the grip of bombings, nightly raids, and their own families were in danger, and they weren't in danger," he said.

However, he said there was one advantage to spending the war in Canada. The rationing was nowhere near as severe as it was in Britain.

Italians played a big role in the British restaurant and catering industry, and camp records show that among the internees at Camp 43 were 23 cooks, 28 waiters, 15 café and restaurant owners and one baker.

"My father said that they ate very well in the camp," he said. "He was interned with some of the best chefs and cooks from the top establishments in Britain."

"He used to joke that they actually ate better than [their] captors."

The detainees also had a classroom where they could volunteer to teach each other subjects, including French, chemistry and astronomy.

There was also a small library stocked with books from the YMCA and McGill University, although Bédard said detainees complained there was never enough reading material.

Among the detainees were 23 cooks, 7 firemen, 2 medical doctors and an astronomer. Renato Gonnella is sitting in the front row on the far right. (Submitted by Ralph Gonnella)

The detainees worked for 20 cents a day, doing jobs like making bandages and pillowcases for the Red Cross. They would be paid in vouchers which they could exchange at a canteen for treats like chocolate and cigarettes.

In his memoir Isle of the Displaced, another detainee, Joe Pieri, said after heavy snowfalls, "volunteers would be asked for and then escorted into the city under heavy guard to help clear the streets."

Pieri said it was humiliating to be paraded around the city, although Montrealers would feel sorry for them and offer gifts like cigarettes.

A return to the Isle of Man

Italy surrendered to the Allied forces in 1943, and the camp closed on Nov. 1 of that year.

This building was for the internees. Because they fell under the Geneva Convention, inspectors would come to monitor the conditions in the camp. (Archives de Montréal)

At that point the detainees were free to return home, as long as they agreed to work in the auxiliary military corps in Britain.

Many waited before crossing the Atlantic, fearing their ship home might be torpedoed by German submarines.

Renato Gonnella did leave Montreal in 1943. He was sent to the Isle Of Man, which was where the U.K. had been holding the majority of the Italians that British authorities had arrested. He spent a couple months there before being freed in May of 1944.

Ralph says his father was angry about losing four years of his life, but he also felt lucky to have survived the war.

"Everything is sort of tempered by ... what happened to others."

One of Ralph's uncles, who was also of Italian descent, fought in the British Army.

"We lost him in the north of France."

'I want the history recorded'

The internment camp on Île Sainte-Hélène was far from the only one in Canada.

The Canadian government detained Japanese Canadians, selling off their homes and businesses to pay for their detention in the interior of British Columbia. Those who resisted detention were sent to prisoner of war camps in Petawawa, Ont.

The RCMP also interned Italian-Canadian men in Petawawa and in Fredericton, N.B.

Last year, the federal government committed to apologizing to the Italian-Canadians who were detained in Canada on suspicion of supporting Mussolini.

However, Ralph Gonnella told CBC he is not interested in an apology.

"My fear for an apology is it sometimes sanitizes the history," he said. "[The government] can say, 'That happened, but we've said sorry and then we can move on.'"

"I want the history to be recorded and remembered."

At the Stewart Museum, a prison door from Camp 43 is part of the permanent exhibition, and there are plans to commemorate the camp in the museum's programming next summer, in time for the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War.

For Ralph Gonnella, the decision to put his father's internment uniform inside Renato's casket back in 2002 was a way to bury with him Prisoner 179, and to show the importance of that period of his father's life.

"It was part of him," Ralph Gonnella says.

In April 1948, Renato Gonnella married Vira Santini in Glasglow, Scotland. (Submitted by Ralph Gonnella)


Craig Desson


Craig Desson is a producer and journalist at CBC Montreal. He was born in Montreal and has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Germany and Sierra Leone. Craig has also worked for CBC Radio.


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