RCMP plant tree to remember internment of Italian-Canadians

The RCMP planted a tree on the grounds of the Canadian Police College in Ottawa Tuesday as a show of regret for their involvement with the internment of 600 Italian-Canadians during the Second World War.

Mounties arrested 600 Italian-Canadians during Second World War, sending them to work camps

RCMP held a ceremony in Ottawa Sept. 18 to plant a tree and express their regret for their role in arresting hundreds of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War. (RCMP)

The RCMP planted a tree on the grounds of the Canadian Police College in Ottawa Tuesday as a show of regret for their involvement with the internment of 600 Italian-Canadians during the Second World War.

In 1940, after declaring war on Germany and its allies, including Italy, the Government of Canada enacted the War Measures Act and declared 31,000 Italian-Canadians enemy aliens.

The police force oversaw the arrest and internment of 600 of them.

While in internment camps they were forced to do manual labour, including cutting down trees for firewood.

Roughly 100 of their children and grandchildren were at the college to witness Tuesday's tree planting, including Joyce Pillarella, whose grandfather Nicola Germano was interned.

"The families appreciate the tree, because a historical marker is a way of giving a voice to people who can't speak," Pillarella told CBC Radio's All In A Day.

About 600 Italian-Canadian men were sent to internment camps during the Second World War, including Joyce Pillarella's grandfather, Nicola Germano, second from the left in the front row. (Joyce Pillarella)

Some of the men were allowed to leave the camp during the war but were forced to sign gag orders preventing them from speaking about what they experienced, Pillarella said.

"The punishment was repositioned from barbed wire to fear."

Pillarella is a historian who has studied the internment of Italian-Canadians. She said her grandfather, like most of the interned men, shared very little with his family about what happened in the camps. 

Now, little is known about what actually happened there, aside from what's contained in RCMP documents, she said.

No apology

The tree planting was a show of regret from the RCMP, but not an official apology from the government.

"The RCMP cannot issue an apology because they did not send out the orders for the internment. That was the government," Pillarella said.

Despite that, she said she and her relatives are extremely grateful for the acknowledgement, though they'd still appreciate a formal apology from the government.

"It goes a long way in terms of comforting [families] that, as they always knew, their fathers were not criminals."

Given the silence that was forced on those who were interned, Pillarella said the only way forward is open and public acknowledgement. 

It's meant to serve as a reminder of the force's regret over the internment of Italian immigrants during the second world war. The grandaughter of one of those immigrants will tell us what that means to her. 9:25