'It really feels like somebody is sticking a knife in you again': Grandson of Guelph man interned in WWII responds to government’s apology to Italian Canadians
KITCHENER -- Local families of Italian Canadians who were interned in camps during the Second World War are responding after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a formal apology on Thursday.
“I’m glad he did this, it had to be done,” said Ron Cirotto, whose grandfather was taken from his home on Elizabeth Street in Guelph by RCMP in 1940.
Cirotto’s grandfather, Girolamo (Mome) Barbaro, was one of 600 men interned in camps in Canada after Italy entered the war as an ally of Germany in 1940. Four women were detained and sent to jail, while about 31,000 other Italian Canadians were called “enemy aliens,” prompting mistreatment and discrimination.
“To the men and women who were taken to prisoner of war camps or jail without charge, people who are no longer with us to hear this apology … to the children and grandchildren who have carried a past generation’s shame and hurt, and to their community, a community that has given so much to our country, we are sorry,” said the prime minister.
A day after the apology, Cirotto recalled his mother’s account of the night her father was taken.
“I guess we have an innate ability to suppress those memories because it really feels like somebody is sticking a knife in you again,” Cirotto told CTV News.
He says his mother, Phyllis Barbaro, was only 15 years old at the time. He explained that she sat down for dinner with her father, three sisters and brother on a Friday evening when RCMP rammed through the door, put her father in handcuffs and dragged him out.
“I know that incident stuck with my mother for a long, long time. She took it to the grave with her. She would get very upset if you talked about it with the family and stuff like that,” he said, adding it was over three years before the family saw his grandfather again.
Cirotto said his grandfather was taken to Camp Petawawa. Trudeau referenced the camp in his apology, saying sometimes the internment lasted a few months and other times it lasted years.
“But the impacts, those lasted a lifetime,” Trudeau said.
Those impacts are still felt in Guelph decades later, with 12,730 residents who identified as having Italian ethnic origins as of the 2016 census, the latest for which data is available.
“My aunt was telling me too it happened to quite a few of (my grandfather’s) friends in the Guelph area,” Cirotto said.
But it’s those memories, regardless of how painful they are, that Cirotto says can’t be forgotten. He encourages people to keep asking their parents and grandparents about such historical events.
“Pay attention now. Because you’ll be in my situation in 30 or 40 years from now and say ‘I wish I would’ve asked mom or dad something,’” he says. “Don’t let the time slip through your fingers.”