Friend and foe

During the Second World War, Italian-Canadians, including Greg Moro's father Lou, served with the Allies while Canada interned hundreds of their brethren

Luigi "Lou" Moro's soccer and lacrosse abilities were so impressive, he was inducted into five sports halls of fame, including the B.C. Sports Hall of Fame. But few know about his service in the Canadian navy during the Second World War.

Lou talked little about this part of his past, even with his immediate family. His military service was connected to his "enemy alien" designation by the Canadian government 12 years after he'd arrived in Canada as a pre-teen. To avoid being interned like 44 of his brethren living in Vancouver and other parts of B.C., the Trail resident enlisted in the army and then the Royal Canadian Navy.

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A new exhibit and book, which will be launched at the Italian Cultural Centre March 6, include Lou's war memorabilia and the recollections of his son, Greg Moro. Lou died in 2009 at age 91.

Il Museo, the cultural centre's museum, will exhibit Beyond the Barbed Wire: Experiences of Italian Canadians in World War Two. Italian-Canadian author Ray Culos will also launch INJUSTICE SERVED: the Story of B.C.'s Italian Enemy Aliens during WWII. Both are part of an umbrella project called A Question of Loyalty, which also includes a play called FRESCO, written by Lucia Frangione with BellaLuna Productions.

A Question of Loyalty highlights this dark time in Vancouver and Canada's history for the first time.

It's not well known that 44 Italian men who resided in Vancouver-up to 700 men across the country-were interned without charge after Fascist Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini joined forces with Nazi Germany on June 10, 1940.

Another 1,800 men from the community of 4,500 Italians in Vancouver were designated enemy aliens and had to report to police once a month. Actions taken against Italian immigrants left financial and emotional scars that have long been swathed in silence.

"When people came back after being interned or after the war was over and they were no longer classified as enemy aliens, most people probably wanted to just get back to normal life and not really talk about these upsetting events and all the stigma that was around them," says A Question of Loyalty program manager and museum curator Julia Murray. "People seem to be pleased that we're talking about this and saying that's an important chapter in the history of the community."

Lou Moro didn't talk about his experiences of serving in the Second World War for decades. It took his teenaged grandson Blair being chosen to represent English-speaking Canadian youth at the commemoration of the 65th anniversary of D-Day at Juno Beach in France, in 2009, for the floodgates to open.

Lou immigrated from Italy to the Kootenay town of Trail when he was 11 in 1929. The family had to leave one of Lou's brothers behind because he'd had polio and Canada refused him entry.

It wasn't an easy time to be Italian in Canada despite the multiplying Italian population in Trail, but Lou rapidly became a sports hero in the small smelter town.

"He really talked a lot about the fact that he couldn't speak English and that he found that people weren't very nice, other than the Italians," Greg Moro says. "I believe that's why he turned to sports."

Lou boxed and excelled as a lacrosse goalie. But the Parliament of Canada had invoked a War Measures Act in 1939. In 1940, when Lou was 22, police told him he was considered an enemy alien and he'd have to report to them every month.

The label enemy alien applied to three categories of people, says Culos, who's written four books about the history of Italians in Vancouver: Italian nationals, Italian immigrants who arrived during Mussolini's leadership, and the alleged members of an Italian club in Vancouver called Circolo Giulio Giordani.

Lou not only arrived during Mussolini's tenure, but his parents had also failed to apply for his naturalization papers, which meant he remained an Italian national.

Moro believes Lou visited police for six months or longer until they told him he would be interned or he could join the Canadian military. Lou joined the army in Vernon. "His biggest fear was that as a soldier he could very well be sent to Italy and, at some point, he could be pointing a rifle at his brother," 58-year-old Moro says.

Lou made his way to Victoria where he joined the navy.

His superiors swiftly recognized his sports finesse, so Lou remained in Canada until 1944. He cooked on a boat that sailed between Victoria and Prince Rupert, tended goal for the navy's lacrosse team and trained its morale-boosting hockey team. After D-Day, he sailed with the navy to England on the HMCS Cowichan minesweeping ship.

He was discharged from service in 1945 and lived in Vancouver, then Burnaby. Lou trained lacrosse and soccer teams, including the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Vancouver 86ers.

When he was 13, Moro asked his father where he'd put his war memorabilia. Lou told him he'd thrown everything out. But when 16-year-old Blair was preparing to travel with a delegation of 46 Canadians, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to the spot where Canadian soldiers entered Nazi-occupied France, Moro learned war medals rested among the sports medals, plaques and trophies that crowded Lou's mantel.

Moro contributed photos of his father in uniform, three war medals, a lighter inscribed with his father's name, military number and the HMCS Cowichan, and a tiny jug meant for rum rations to the Beyond the Barbed Wire exhibit. He's also shared his story with Culos, who interviewed Lou in 1992.

Moro says his father was so proud of his grandson that he never saw the irony of him representing the country that treated him with suspicion. "He was so proud, he was just beyond himself," Moro says. Lou woke up at 5 a.m. to watch the D-Day ceremony on TV. He died three months later.

Moro, a retired high school teacher from Surrey, never knew Italians were interned during the Second World War. (Japanese families, German nationals, Ukrainian Communists and others the Canadian government deemed a potential threat were also interned.)

"We've always heard of the Japanese and what they went through," he says.

In fact, Moro discovered that a Japanese family that was interned had owned his family's former Grandview-Woodland home. A neighbour, who Moro says his father described as a "mafia-type guy," paid the Japanese owners of six area houses "a couple hundred dollars" for their homes before they were interned. When Lou was discharged from the military, he bought one. "That's how that area went from being Japanese to Italian," Moro says.

He believes it's important to share the Second World War portion of his father's story, even though his dad didn't talk much about this time. "We tend to forget too quickly," Moro says.

R elatives of the 44 now deceased Italian men residing in Vancouver who were interned aren't keen to discuss whether their departed grandfathers and greatgrandfathers, or nonnos, supported Mussolini's fascist regime.

Culos, who interviewed relatives of two interned men and relatives of about 10 enemy aliens for INJUSTICE SERVED, says it's a sensitive topic. "If you lived in that time and your neighbour's son was out there in Europe fighting against Germany and Italy and you had a relative that had been interned, there would have been a lot of questions, so they hid, they generally did not speak of it," he says. "[Internees] were never given an opportunity to have legal representation, they were never charged with anything, and as a result, they were incarcerated for an average of 15-and-a-half months, but nothing ever was resolved."

Members of Vancouver's Italian community were forced to choose allegiances once Mussolini joined the Nazis. The Italian consulate in Vancouver encouraged local Italians to declare their allegiance to Mussolini and penetrated the local Circolo Giulio Giordani club.

Murray from the Italian Cultural Centre museum says it's debatable how overt fascism was in the club. "Some people were perhaps a bit naïve... and got mixed up in something that they didn't really understand the significance of," she says.

But 75-year-old Culos says those who joined the Circolo, or club, signed an application membership card that stated they supported the fascist revolution.

Culos's father Marino, who at the time of the war was president of the Sons of Italy Society, refused to join the Circolo.

As Mussolini strengthened his ties to Nazi Germany, other members of Vancouver's Italian community, led by the first Italian lawyer and first Italian judge in the city, Angelo Branca, established the anti-fascist group the Italian-Canadian War Vigilance Association. Three hundred members of the association pledged allegiance to Canada, by chance on the same day that Mussolini joined forces with Adolf Hitler.

But when their 44 brethren from the Circolo Giulio Giordani, nearly 10 per cent of Vancouver's Italian population, were interned, association members advocated on their behalf.

Circolo member Santo Pasqualini was initially interned in Kananaskis, Alta., then Petawawa, Ont. for a total of two years. (Once Kananaskis became an exclusively German camp, Italians were transferred to Petawawa.) In the meantime, his wife Alice, the mother of a three-and a six-year-old lost the family's bakery at 200 Hawkes Ave. in Strathcona to bankruptcy. Alice suffered a nervous breakdown and friends took in the children for the duration of her husband's internment. Culos reports Pasqualini insisted under interrogation that he joined Circolo because he thought he and others would receive a free trip to Italy. But the trip was called off because of the war.

Bruno Girardi owned the L'Eco ItaloCanadese newspaper, which included pro-fascist rhetoric. He was interned in Kananaskis and Petawawa as a potential threat to the state. His wife Emma and their three-year-old son had to move in with her parents.

"This incident took place 72 years ago this coming June," notes Culos. "There are two and three generations of relatives born to these families since the end of World War II. It's not a popular topic of conversation. Moreover, the internees, with the odd exception, did not share detailed information about the internment to their children. To many, the subject is closed."

The first two letters of the title of Culos's new book, INJUSTICE SERVED, are italicized because Culos wants readers to consider whether justice or injustice was served in Canada's dealings with those labelled enemy aliens. "In my judgment, the jury is still out," he says. "If indeed there were guilty parties among the internees, it was never proven in a court of law."

P laywright and actor Lucia Frangione researched Mussolini's rise to power, various countries' practices of interning Italian immigrants and how wives and children who were left behind got by, before she conceived FRESCO with the BellaLuna Productions ensemble of Italian-Canadian actors.

She wanted to understand why Mussolini had been so beloved.

"My grandfather was in the Mussolini army and was in Albania, so that's just a couple generations away," Frangione says. "When I did more reading about how he economically revitalized Italy, especially during the time where the rest of the world was suffering the Great Depression, I started to understand. When you're starving and somebody solves something enough so that your family can eat, you actually have a job, it's pretty appealing."

She found that 41 men from Vancouver, eight from Trail and two from elsewhere in B.C. were interned for periods of between two weeks and two years. While thousands of Italians were interned in Australia and a couple hundred in the United States, Frangione says she learned Canada "was one of the worst."

"The extent to which Italians were persecuted at the turn of the century astonished me," Frangione says. "[They were] called dirty degos and kept from work and not given tenancy in boarding houses."

Police shut down Italian language schools and the savings accounts of those interned were frozen.

"When you're a woman and you have six kids what are you going to do if you have no money?" Frangione says. "Some people really don't want to talk about that. There's a seedy element to this story, too, of what you do when your government and society makes it so that you can't survive. There's a side to the Italian society, too, that this brings up, the prostitution, the bootlegging, the gambling."

FRESCO tells the story of Rosina, a struggling performance artist who inherits her grandparents' crumbling Strathcona home. Her father counsels her to forget the past and sell the house, while the spirit of her grandmother, or nonna, urges her to save this chunk of her family's heritage. It's a journey into her family's often-painful past that's set in the present and during the Second World War.

It runs at the Cultch March 28 to 31.

For more information, see Twitter: @Cheryl_Rossi

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