In May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will issue a formal apology for the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War.
The apology is in recognition of one of the more uncomfortable pieces of Canada’s history during the war years. More than 600 Italian-Canadian men were housed in internment camps in Canada after Italy allied with Germany during the war. Another 31,000 Italian-Canadians were declared enemy aliens.
It’s not the only black mark on Canada’s reputation.
Canada also housed 22,000 Japanese-Canadians — more than 90 per cent of the Japanese-Canadian population at the time — in internment camps during the war. And in 1939, Canada rejected an asylum request from more than 900 Jewish refugees about the MS St. Louis. The ship returned to Germany and 254 of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
In a country that prides itself on respectful treatment of all, the memory of internment camps is a harsh reminder of a time when Canada fell far short of its ideals.
The decision to refuse entry to the refugees aboard the MS St. Louis is a bleak contrast to the many stories of Canadians who have been able to build a home for themselves, whether as immigrants or as refugees.
In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney apologized for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. In 2018, Trudeau issued an apology for Canada’s decision about the MS St. Louis. The apology to for the internment of Italian-Canadians follows this pattern of making amends for a past wrong.
In addition, Canada’s federal government has issued other apologies in recent years. These include apologies for mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada, for the residential schools system and an apology for the mistreatment of lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
The wartime apologies have been slow in coming. The apology for the internment of Japanese-Canadians came more than 40 years after the end of the Second World War. The apology for the MS St. Louis incident was issued more than 79 years after the fact. And the apology to the Italian-Canadians is coming around 80 years after the internment occurred.
Why were these apologies not issued in the years immediately after the Second World War?
There is no statute of limitations on apologizing, and there are stories of people making amends many years after an initial wrong was committed. Still, eight decades is a long time to wait.
Some might argue that the formal apology is not necessary. Wouldn’t it be better to leave the past in the past? The war is long over and the extreme wartime measures are no longer needed. Besides, no statement can undo what has been done.
While incidents committed in the past should not define the present, they need to be acknowledged. To carry on as if nothing happened could be seen erasing or minimizing a part of our history.
“It is our hope that this long overdue apology will bring awareness to our failings, as we vow to never let history repeat itself,” Trudeau said in 2018 when delivering the apology for the MS St. Louis incident.
A similar sentiment would apply to the upcoming apology for the internment of Italian-Canadians during the Second World War.
Owning up to past wrongdoings and past shortcomings is never easy, but it is an important step in ensuring they are not repeated in the future.
John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.
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