The Fabric of Family and the Quilt of Community

Photo by cottonbro on

When I was in Grade 12, as part of a history project, I invited my Uncle Jack to come speak to my class. I don’t remember exactly what the assignment was about, but there was some aspect of the mosaic style of immigration in Canada. What I do remember is that he said that our family wasn’t Italian. We weren’t Italian-Canadians. He said we are Canadian-Italians, because the Canadian part comes first. That was 30+ years ago, but after that, for the rest of his life, I was more aware that he wore a maple leaf and a poppy on his coat – all 4 seasons, all year, every year he was steadfastly, devotedly, Canadian.

My uncle immigrated when he was very young. He came to Canada across the Atlantic during WW1 with his mother and siblings (including my 8 year old grandmother). They learned to speak English, and other than in the fading years of my Grandfathers life, when he reverted to a Italo-English patois, they spoke English at home. Sure, there were fun colloquialisms in Italian, but they were English speaking Canadian-Italian immigrants. I recall rabidly patriotic Canada day celebrations, with salmon from the west and lobster from the east because they loved their adoptive country.

And this, after that dark period when their country didn’t love them quite so much.

During WWII, my grandparents and thousands of other Canadian-Italians were labelled enemies of Canada. They were watched by paranoid neighbours and a fearful government, and 80 years ago, some of them were pulled out of their workplaces and their homes, no longer welcome in their communities. Try to imagine – You’re 38, you’ve worked your tail off for years to build a business, to serve your community, to help friends of a similar heritage to celebrate the best parts of your culture. And then, the RCMP show up and drag you off because … what? Nothing. Because someone’s gossip and ill will made the country you love turn against you. You are no longer welcome.

A decade after my Uncle came to speak to my class, there was a exhibition about the Italian-Canadian experience at the Museum of Civilization. My whole family wanted to go, so we packed up for a day at the museum. I remember looking across the exhibit and seeing my dad point to a small placard. It was a tiny note about how 600 nameless, faceless Italian-Canadians were interned during WWII, without charges, without cause, and no government had apologized to the detainees in the (then) 60 years since. I knew he was looking for this to be there because my grandfather was one of the interned. A few years later, when I was in the Canadian National War Museum, the WW2 exhibit had a similar little square of text, calling it a dark time. Indeed.

Almost 2 decades after that, a few weeks ago, the apology finally came. My dad and my aunt got to be part of the closed conversation with our Prime Minister, where some families had a private (virtual) audience with the PM about how the internment of their father or grandfather affected their family, and what the apology means at long last.

I’ve been following the coverage, and there’s been a fair bit of pretty disrespectful sarcastic responses. Yeah, I know, the comments section is never where you go to see the best of humanity, but the comments that were “When will we get the apology to Snow Birds for the loss of their Winter 2020-2021 trips to Florida” and “Why is he doing this, they’re all dead now lols” and “Nobody apologized to veterans who had Agent Orange tested on them, shame on Trudeau for apologizing for this now” and “He should be concentrating on the budget, not useless apologies” and  “More apologies, what a joke this country is

*sigh*  The nastiness persists.

I’ve been thinking about what apologies mean – why was this so important? Yes, no one who was interned is alive any more, so what’s the big deal? There are a ton of examples that we run into every day wherein people want apologies for really entitled reasons —I showed up late to the gate to get on my plane, and now I have to check my oversize carry-on luggage because there’s no room left in the overhead compartment?!? This is unacceptable and I demand an apology! It took 4 hours to see a doctor at the Emergency room because 2 ambulances showed up. I got here first so I demand an apology! I can’t reach the juice on the top shelf of the supermarket and no one was there to help me. You should apologize for making me wait-–  I mean, there’s a whole universe of Memes about Karens-who-want-to-speak-to-the-Manager. There are fights between siblings that contain, at some point, the most insincere “Sorrrreeeeeee” possible (usually demanded by an exasperated parent).

There’s a bookmark that I’ve had sitting in my Thinkythought Incubator about a better way to say sorry. It’s intended to help kids not just spit venomous sorrynotsorry fake apologies at each other to appease the adult in the room.  But the lesson stands for adults too. Lots of people are terrible at apologies.  Love means never having to say you’re sorry is bullshit. There. I said it. Not. Sorry. At. All.

Anyway, the formula for a good apology goes like this:

I’m sorry for…

This was wrong because…

In the future , I will [make amends somehow]

Will you forgive me?

The last part is interesting to me because that’s the thing – you don’t *have* to forgive someone. There’s all kinds of literature about how forgiving someone is good for your health, because you’re not carrying around that burden. And sometimes you need to forgive someone even when they haven’t asked for it (or tried to make amends for the hurt they’ve caused).

So you know what? Justin Trudeau didn’t have to make amends to me. He didn’t drag me out of my place of business in the middle of the day and toss me in jail and then drive me across the province and make me wear a shirt with a dot on the back so that If I tried to escape the RCMP had a target to put in the rifle’s crosshairs. But he, as a representative of the government of Canada, needed to apologize to the community that bore the brunt of another government’s fear and misguided actions 80 years ago. He saw the opportunity to restore a relationship. He chose to reconcile the errors of that past government.

I’m not saying there aren’t other apologies to be made to other groups for other things. Of course there are. I’m not saying my community’s need is more needful than another apology yet un-offered. I’m saying that this apology meant a great deal to a whole community of people, and belittling it’s significance because there are other apologies still un-made isn’t OK. My cultural community got the official apology we’ve been wanting for 80 years. That is significant, and we are grateful.

There have been two other events that deserve mentioning here. My grandfather has been featured in the Immigrant Story exhibit at the Joseph D. Carrier Art Gallery in Toronto, and a plaque was unveiled that will be permanently installed at Immigration Square in Hamilton to commemorate the detainees.

The plaque installed at Immigration Square in Hamilton on James Street North.

Fear is not our friend. We can’t just say we’re sorry; we have to actually BE sorry. And there’s definitely work to do to help others get the apologies they need, too.  This is the value of telling the story. When we tell the story, we learn, and maybe, maybe there won’t be so many apologies required in the future.

Extra Credit:

Presenza exhibit at the Museum of Civilization

Canadian Internment Camps

Italian Canadians as Enemy Aliens: Memories of WWII

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