An Excess of Moral Equivalency

Commemorative Plaques at Dante Park, Gladstone/Booth
Dear gentle reader: this post may offend some of you with tender sensibilities, so do not read on if you are sensitive about Italians, Catholics, Afghanis, Muslims, Fascists, Tamils, Tamil Tigers, the War Measures Act, moral equivalency, PC, are Liberal, or liberal, or easily offended in any way. You were warned. And then I ask of the reader some latitude, since I am unsure myself what I think of the situation described below:


First, to get us warmed up, some satire:

ThePublic Citizen, October 21, 2070: Mo Kadr stood beside his father’s name today at the unveiling of the Muslim-Canadian Commemorative Plaque. “My father Omar”, said Mo, “was only interested in the well-being of his people and his religious rights. Along with his father, Ahmed, he fought for justice. He was misunderstood and our family suffered great injustice as a result.”  To make up for that misunderstanding, albeit 60 years late, Liberal MPs were present at the unveiling of a commemorative wall that listed several dozen  who struggled for their people, who were arrested or imprisoned for “terrorism” back in the early part of the century. Right after their names are an edited list of Canadians who died in Afghanistan in an unjust war. A woman soldier, a journalist, and a male soldier from Newfoundland were selected to symbolize the other Canadians who lost their lives in the struggle for Afghanistan self-determination. Omar, unfortunately, had died just a few weeks before he could see his name publicly rehabilitated; he died at his palatial seaside mansion in Hawaii which he had bought with his $100 million “reconciliation” money belatedly paid by the Federal government… Etc Etc.


Now, back to the present.

Last week, there was an unveiling of a memorial wall to honour interned Italian-Canadians in the 1940’s. I thought the whole thing was the epitome of moral equivalency gone berserk. I found it discomforting then, and still find it discomforting, but I find it difficult to explain just why. Bear with me while I wander through this minefield.

You can read the original Ottawa Citizen article here (I’ll wait until you come back):


So what bugs me? Let me count the ways:

–          The confusion between someone being interred during a war situation, but not actually charged with  treason, and being totally innocent of any activity harmful to Canadians. Who was rounded up from the Italian community? Was it an odd assortment of tile layers and laborers, or was it the cheerleaders for the rise and export of Italian fascism? Is it too much to ask for a reporter who is curious?

–          The deliberate equivilenting of civilian internees with soldiers who died fighting for Canada. Sorry folks, the internees did not make a sacrifice anywhere near that of the soldiers.  Soldiers who died deserve our respect and remembrance, as do all the Italian-Canadian soldiers who put their lives in danger for Canada (and whose names are curiously omitted from this plaque).

I find it odd to see in the original story a vague gloss of legitimate activities – “helping to build a church”—being put over any hard questions about the previous activities of the internees. After all, the Feds didn’t inter every Italian*.  Was the local leadership thoroughly and marvellously apolitical? Or was it expressing  strong fascist sympathies?  

 Is anyone else disturbed by the  cutesy overlay in the Citizen article of a little girl trying to save the statue [of a megalomaniac fascist dictator, but hey, who’s noticing?] from rampaging Mounties? Sorry folks, either she knew she had to hide the evidence, or was trying to save her family’s fascist hero for seizure, but it is hard to put an acceptable gloss of innocence on this. Is it too harsh to read into that Citizen story … a child corrupted by paternal enthusiasm for a fascist dictator?

I don’t think we do society any favour by varnishing over some of the reality in the Italian colony in 1940’s Ottawa. Lets see, the Italian community in Ottawa was being lead by clergy directly imported from fascist Italy, some members watching fascist movies at the local theatre, cheering on Mussolini’s efforts to “civilize”  Ethiopia, spending evenings listening on the home record player to Mussolini  praising Herr Hitler,   …  what’s to question about this??

Definitely we need a commemorative plaque that assures us Italian Canadians participated “fully” in the war effort.

Don’t for a minute think that I believe all Italians in Ottawa were fascist sympathizers ready to sabotage the Canadian democracy or war effort. The vast majority of people simply don’t get involved in politics. Just as I don’t think that Muslims in Ottawa are all sympathetic to the radical intolerant versions of Islam. But a few are. Ergo, surveillance of imams sent from “foreign lands”, infiltration of social and political action groups, and the occasional breaking up of terrorist-related activities, not all the participants of which get charged with serious crimes.

In my view, the continual entanglement of Canadian populations with the war efforts of their former or ancestral homelands is a distressing artifact of an ongoing colonial mentality amongst immigrants who put too much value on where they came from rather than where they are. Whether that group is Canadians of British ancestry rushing to join the Mother Country’s war effort, Tamils funding the Tigers (whether voluntarily or through war taxes levied through threats of intimidation), French Canadians taking their anti-war lead from France’s hopping in bed with the occupying Germans, or Canadians cheering on messianic heroes of the oppressed (eg Osama Bin Laden, Mussolini, the Emperor, or whomever).

Go back to the second pic and re-read the plaque. Methinks it doth protest too hard.

Internees are not the equivalent of our war dead. 

The commemorative plaque at Piazza Dante does not edify or expand our knowledge; it corrupts it with a deluded veneer of moral equivalency run amok. I’d much rather see a frank acknowledgement that the community was divided, but after adversity grew stronger.

(above) The earlier war monument in the same Piazza. You can take this inclusiveness of “all soldiers” as being a nice, liberal expression. Or as oblique concealment that some Italians died fighting against Canadians.

Over a pasta and beans dinner (and too much red wine) we once had a long reminiscing retelling by a (now-deceased) Italian neighbor of his war experiences. I was younger then, and confused why I couldn’t get clear just where and when his exploits took place. Finally I asked him which army he was in. It took another Italian neighbour to spell out that some things had to be glossed over. But I don’t think that should be set in granite.


*(that was saved for the Japanese Canadians).


10 thoughts on “An Excess of Moral Equivalency

  1. Sorry Eric, I think you’re way off on this one. The big point, and the one you’re missing, is summed up in this quote: “It’s commemorating what happened, but also as a caution – let’s not do this again.”

    The point: internment of anybody without charges, during war or any time, is a gross injustice. Period. It doesn’t matter who you sympathize with or which commemorative statue you have in your house. And it certainly doesn’t matter that involuntary confinement is not *as* great a sacrifice as Canadian soldiers voluntarily made/make. Internment is just wrong.

  2. “Sorry folks, the internees did not make a sacrifice anywhere near that of the soldiers. Soldiers who died deserve our respect and remembrance,”

    “In my view, the continual entanglement of Canadian populations with the war efforts of their former or ancestral homelands is a distressing… ”

    As long as we continue to glorify soldiers, and by extension war, there will be wars to be entangled in.

  3. In this, and almost all war memorials, I find a glossy, fuzzy, kind of worship of war when we should be remembering that it’s terrible and to prevent war at all costs. People want to thump their chests about honor when they ought to be talking to someone who fought in a war. In my experience (old) veterans are vehemently opposed to new wars.

  4. Yeah, we have something here called free speech. Just because you like Mussolini or Hitler doesn’t mean the government has the right to lock you up. Go join the thought police in North Korea it might be more to your liking.

    1. When Canada was at war with Germany and Italy, expressing support for the enemy would have been close to treasonous. Internment for the length of the war is better than interpreting expressing support for the enemy as treason. You’re testing the limits of free speech there.

  5. Bravo Eric,

    I felt the same way as you when I read the original article. It was the statue of Mussolini that really put me off. But then Mussolini has always been viewed by us as a bit of a comic buffoon with an inept armed forces; not really all that dangerous. Sort of how we viewed Ghadafi until 6 months ago. I wonder if in a few years when the Germans-Canadians inevitably get their memorial if some elderly person will pull out their old statuette of the Fuhrer and expect sympathy for the injustice done by the Canadian Government three generations ago.

  6. Your post raises questions for me that I fear we don’t have answers for.

    Were the people that were interned actually do anything wrong?
    Did their internment serve some other purpose?
    Or was it a nasty mix of hysteria and incompetence?

    To DenVan’s point, suspension of civil liberties can be justified in times of emergency. Rights charters and such are not suicide pacts. Preservation of life and country are paramount. The hard part is developing fine-tuned tools for controlling when and how those liberties can be suspended, as a government with too much power is also a great threat to a country and its people. My sense is that the tools for doing so in WWII were crude, the information about threats was sparse, and the fears were great.

    Civil liberties and all-out war do not mix well. That’s just one more reason to invest in keeping the peace.

  7. I can’t give your argument proper consideration, as I’m still grappling with the concept of Liberal MPs in 2070.

  8. As an individual whose wife comes from Japan, I find the issue of our war-time internment particularly sensitive. I met my wife in Japan and we married over there. When she first came with me to Canada, it was a diffiifcult discussion to have. She was, however, already aware of this history in Canada, having been taught it in school. Our war time treatment of Japanese Canadians (and pre-war when you get right down to it) was simply appalling. A big part of that (for me) was the inherent racism in the policy: as you correctly point out, Eric, we did not do this with Italian or German Canadians. There is absolutely no comparison between detaining certain prominent members of the Italian or German communities if we have reason to believe they harbour sympaties towards a country that has declared war on us (as Italy did, yes, I am aware that it was we who declared war on Germany and Japan) and the whole-sale disenfranchisement of a people, stripped of all their belongings and sent to live in squalid camps in the interior on BC for nothing more than their enthnicity. But that is not what this plaque is about. And so, I have to admit, that Eric’s point stands. There is something very repulsive in, equating the ‘plight’ of Italian Canadians detained with that of Italian Canadians who died fighting for Canada.

    I also want to voice my agreement with the individual who suggested that in war memorials there was “a glossy, fuzzy kind of worship of war”. War memorials are best done subtly, I believe. Both of my grandfathers were vets and my wife’s grandfather’s were too (for the other side). I know for a fact that my grandfathers couldn’t give two figs over kids skateboarding on the war memorial back in St. John’s (was the local issue when I was growing up) and couldn’t give two figs over any post-war baby boomer who tried to make an issue about the solemn esteem in which we should hold the memorial.

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