Tiohtià:ke (Montreal), May 26, 2021

 

Our Silence is Complicit: Speaking on Fascism in the Italian Community

 

History is not inevitable: it is the product of people looking to the past and interpreting it in their present. This makes the past complicated because people bury it under their own biases and silences. As Italian-Canadians, we have seen certain narratives and interpretations of our history become canon. We feel that it is time to speak out about a particular silence that continues to linger in our community’s narrative today: one that has been both at the forefront, but also pushed below the surface, of a current conversation about the internment of Italian-Canadians during WWII.

 

Despite the significant work being done collecting the stories of families affected by the internment through personal testimonies, and the apology coming from the Canadian government this month, we, as a community, have still not resolved our greatest collective silence around fascism. Without confronting the presence - celebrated and tolerated, but also contested - of fascism in Italian-Canadian history, we will not achieve the closure these efforts seek to find. In fact, it can have dangerous consequences.

 

Efforts to minimize the history of fascism in the community have led to a whitewashed narrative, which, in turn, has been perpetuated and strengthened by those who want to avoid inevitably difficult conversations about our collective past. Worse are those who continue to not-so-subtly celebrate the “legacy” of fascism and use the same propagandist language of the dictatorial regime to minimize any efforts to challenge this narrative. [1]

 

Multiple ahistorical justifications have been made to avoid breaking the silence. First, that fascism has nothing to do with Italian-Canadian history, as it was an ideology that took root overseas and affected Italians in Italy. Therefore, they have the burden to confront this past, not us. Second, and in direct contradiction to the claim above, that fascism was accepted by many, in Italy and abroad. While there is a level of truth to this statement, it’s used to normalize belief in an ideology that was also deeply contested. Often, arguing that being Italian, at the time meant being, at the very least, sympathetic to fascism. Consequently, it ignores and even erases the stories of Italian-Canadian anti-fascists who, despite this exclusion from the generally accepted historical narrative, existed and resisted. [2] Third, that we should actually thank fascism for having built the “Community.” [3]

 

This last argument comes from the lingering legacies of fascist propaganda sent to Montreal and other “colonie,” [4] as Mussolini’s government called any foreign city with a large Italian immigrant community. The Italian consuls stationed in these so-called colonie were tasked with fostering a sense of italianità among the emigrants in an attempt to use them as political pawns for the fascist totalitarian project in Italy. [5] They established networks of “teachers, journalists, sailors and aviators” who distributed propaganda through books, newspapers, and cultural programming. [6] To build up the presence of “the homeland” abroad, Consuls spearheaded and supported the creation of both physical and social spaces, like the Case d’Italia, language classes, and clubs. [7]

 

In many ways, the narratives put forward by fascist propagandists in the 1920s and 30s are actually what serve as the basis for the kind of italianità that is still celebrated today: the worshipping of “explorers” and navigators (from Verrazzano, Columbus, and Caboto to Italo Balbo and aviation) [8] and the focus on the “‘incomparable’ [Italian] contribution to world civilization by means of art, work, science.” [9] This was done at the expense of the lived experiences and histories of the contadini, workers, and migrants. [10] Fascist myths were never meant to represent us and our communities. This italianità was about totalitarian nation-building.

 

However, Italian-Canadians were not (and are not) just victims of this propaganda. Known-fascist Italian-Canadian priests, organizations, and individuals pushed this political agenda through their positions of influence in the community. We have seen institutions continue to avoid contending with their own histories with this ideology. Though we do not condone the ways in which the Canadian government and the RCMP suspended individual rights by arresting and interning individuals without trial, often based on problematic information provided by paid informants (not to mention the fact that prominent, leading fascists, like Sebastiani and Biffi, were not interned), [11] it is also wrong to claim that fascism and fascists were never present in our community. This is ahistorical, counterproductive, and dangerous.

For many, the silence around the internment and fascism is rooted in shame, fear, guilt, and trauma. For others, it is strategic. Talking about fascism complicates the narrative because it challenges the claim that “Italian Canadians were interned [solely] because of their ethnicity.” [12] Though there is no doubt that there were problems with the ways in which the RCMP collected information on internees, this is another question to ask about the balances of power and influence in the community. Who was protected, and why? How and by whom?

 

Though we know that compensation has not been officially requested or promised, that has not stopped others from doing so in the name of the community. [13] With vague plans to use the money for education purposes, we ask: who would organize this educational fund and create the programs or resources? What narrative would they uphold? Would the history of fascism in Montreal, Quebec, and Canada be discussed honestly and openly?


If we let the apology become our collective closure, the ability to acknowledge and talk about this history will be even more difficult, because it is seen as a resolution to a lingering silence. As this is happening, some continue to use language and tactics reminiscent of fascist propaganda in order to advance political agendas under the guise of collective unity. We cannot speak about internment without acknowledging the complex history of fascism in the Italian and Italian-Canadian communities. It’s time to break the real silence. 

We will be putting together some events and resources in the coming weeks to help continue this conversation within the community.

Canadian Italians Against Oppression (C.I.A.O.)

Download English PDF.

Download French PDF.

Download Italian PDF.​

[1] Pietro Lucca, “Quando la storia viene travisata ad uso e consumo,” Cittadino Canadese, June 15, 2020, 13:  “E non poteva essere altrimenti, poiché individui di tale stampo sono sempre pronti a criticare e sabotare. Degni eredi dei vari Antonino Spada ed il suo gruppo del passato, i quali, mentre la Comunità festeggiava l’erezione della statua di Giovanni Caboto, o l’arrivo trionfale degli atlantici (Italo Balbo), distribuivano volantini anti-italiani, cercando di minare l’atmosfera e sabotare le celebrazioni.”
 

[2] As Angelo Principe states in “Note sul radicalismo tra gli italiani in Canada dalla Prima Guerra Mondiale alla Conciliazione”: while the history of Italian Canadian radicals isn’t very well-known, between WWI and the 1929 Lateran Pacts, they became more active and organized within the community. Therefore, he argues, they did have an effect on Italian Canadian political and social spheres (113).

[3] Lucca, “Quando la storia viene travisata ad uso e consumo.”

[4] Colonies. See Robert F. Harney, “Caboto and Other Parentela: The Uses of the Italian Canadian Past”; Matteo Pretelli, “Mussolini’s Mobilities: Transnational Movements between Fascist Italy and Italian Communities Abroad” and “Culture or Propaganda? Fascism and Italian Culture in the United States.”

[5] Pretelli, “Mussolini’s Mobilities,” 105.

[6] Ibid., 102-3.

[7] Ibid., 105. Montreal’s Casa d’Italia was not the only one at the time: these “homes” were built in a variety of Italian immigrant hubs around the world, including in Hamilton, Ontario, New York City, New York, and Juiz de Fora, Brasil.

[8] The fascist regime wanted to tie mobility to both Italy’s history and modern present: the stories of “Italian explorers,” especially Columbus and Caboto in the foundation myths of America, particularly the United States and Canada, respectively, were used to lay symbolic claim to these lands (In 1958, a Montreal priest, Guglielmo Vangelisti described Caboto as: “the great Italian who gave England her right on the continent, a right which the colonizing spirit of his sons profits from much later on,” quoted in Harney’s “Caboto and Other Parentela,” 22). Fascists made contemporary links to this “colonizing” and “civilizing” spirit through the aviator and Blackshirt leader, Balbo, who went on a campaign of transatlantic flights as a display of Italian power, modernity, and mobility. 

[9] Pretelli, “Culture or Propaganda?” 186.

[10] Harney, ““Caboto and Other Parentela,” 11. Though, Harney goes on to say that this “surrogate history” erases: “the heroism and human resourcefulness of the eight million Italian migrants who helped civilize the Americas.” This is still a problematic and uncritical view of immigration and its role in colonization.

[11] Principe, “A Tangled Knot: Prelude to 10 June 1940,” 28.

[12] Michael Petrou, “An apology rooted in falsehood,” Open Canada, May 4, 2021.

[13] Ralph Mastromonaco “Opinion: Italian Canadians are owed compensation, not just apologies,” Montreal Gazette, April 29, 2021.