MONTREAL -- Italian-Canadians have waited for years for more public recognition of what their families experienced in internment camps in World War II—but more than that, how it affected the following generations, with homes and family businesses lost.

After an apology from the government was delayed, Italian-Canadian groups are asking for it to finally happen, along with restitution of $16.5 million.

“When the breadwinner disappeared, it was bad news, and in Quebec in the 40s a woman could not rent an apartment,” says Nicholas di Pietro, whose father, uncle and great-uncle were all interned.

“A lot of these poor families were stuck unable to find their way forward,” 

His own family’s business at the time disappeared after the removal of the three men, he said.

That era left more scars on Italian-Canadian families than many realize, partly because it was shrouded in secrecy, then rarely spoken about afterwards, their descendants say.

“Its not like they got an official letter from the government explaining where their husbands had gone,” says Joyce Pillarella, whose granfather was held as a prisoner of war for more than three years. 

“Six, seven, eight weeks later, word came back that they had been arrested. Nobody knew why. No charges had been laid.”

Pillarella wrote a book about this episode in Canadian history called Remembering the Internment.

No charges were ever laid against the men. But “they had lived with it in shame and were afraid to talk about it,” Pillarella said. “Some of them hadn't even talked about it to their children.”

Antonio Scascia, speaking on behalf of the Congress of Italian Canadians, the Canadian Italian Business Association and the Sons of Italy, says those three groups are waiting for an official apology that had been expected in March. It was delayed by the pandemic, they say.

Thousands of Italian Canadians were “declared illelegal aliens, families were destroyed, lives were destroyed,” federal Justice Minister David Lametti says.

A formal apology is ”part of the healing process,” he acknowledges. There’s no new timeline for it to happen, but Lametti promises it will happen.

“Our priority is the families, and really giving them the opportunity to feel that the Government of Canada apologized for something they should not have done.” 

Lametti says there’s no government position on financial compensation at this time. 

“I want to turn it around and say ‘Look, despite this, Italian Canadians have made a fantastic contribution to the history and social fabric of this country,” Lametti said.