Italian Canadians and the war in Ukraine: A historical take on a current conflict
By MIREMS Senior Media Analyst Team
Italian Canadians have special historical and lived experiences of what it is like to experience a homeland war. On June 20, 1940 William Lyon Mackenzie King labelled 31,000 Italian Canadians as enemy aliens. Between 1940 and 1943, between 600 and 700 Italian Canadian men were arrested and sent to internment camps as potentially dangerous "enemy aliens" with alleged Fascist connections. On May 27, 2021, 70 years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized at the House of Commons for the war internment of Italian Canadians.
Today, Putin warns Russia against pro-Western “traitors” and scum. The sides might have changed for Italy and Italians abroad, but the memories are there.
The end of the Cold War was supposed to usher in a time of peace and hope, but it left some unfinished business. The end of the Soviet bloc, like the collapse of four great empires in 1918, saw conflict flare up. That was already clear in 1990 when fighting broke out in Moldova (Transnistria), followed over the years in Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), Yugoslavia (Bosnia, Kosovo), Chechnya, and finally Ukraine (Crimea, Donbass). The same happened after the Great War with territorial disputes pitting Italy against Yugoslavia, Poland against Germany, Poland against the Soviet Union, and the Baltic States against the Soviet Union.
Whatever the time or place, such conflicts raise issues of borders, national identity, and interethnic coexistence. Above all, they send civilians on the run. Like my own maternal grandmother who fled her home village in Italy, levelled to the ground during WWI – the one that was supposed to end all wars. Just like Warsaw in 1944, Berlin and Hiroshima in 1945, Grozny in 2000.
The impact of Ukrainian refugees in Italy
This is now the case as Ukrainians pour out of their country. Many are travelling to Italy, which already has a large Ukrainian community (around 240,000). It’s the fourth largest foreign community in the country and the second largest Ukrainian community in western Europe, 80% of whom are women.
While not bordering Ukraine, Italy lies in the outer ring, just next to the countries of first refuge. Therefore, it has received thus far a relative limited number of displaced people, but this might change, as countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Moldova reach their limit.
Along with the ongoing fighting and the geopolitical repercussions of the war, the refugee crisis tops Italy’s news cycle. In one of its latest reports, Rome-based La Repubblica (15/03/2022) noted that since the war broke out, 1.5 million Ukrainian children are on the road, a situation that has prompted the Italian Interior Ministry to order a census of all recently arrived minors.
In a long piece, Milan-based Il Corriere della Sera (11/03/2022) stresses that the Ukraine refugee crisis is the worse in Europe since 1945 with 2.3 million people in flight as of last Friday. The article, linked to the UNHCR’s Operational Data Portal Ukraine Refugee Situation also looks at the legal status of refugees as well as the cost for Italy of accepting refugees: CAD$13,500 per person. The paper estimates that the European Union faces an overall price tag for the Ukrainian refugee tsunami of CAD$31 billion.
Italy’s business newspaper, IlSole-24Ore (16/03/2022), reports that the Italian government is increasing funding for families willing to take in Ukrainian refugees, just shy of 50,000 (24,000 women, 19,000 minors, and 4,000 men) as of March 16.
Turin-based La Stampa (15/03/3022) carries survey results that indicate that almost 6 Italians in 10 are in favour of welcoming refugees. Vatican News (16/03/2022), the news website of the Vatican Dicastery (Department) of Communications, reports that Italian towns and small urban centres are mobilizing to receive Ukrainian refugees.
Not only refugees concern the Italians. In Il Cittadino Canadese, Alessandra Cori reports that the winds of war drive up the prices of pasta and bread. Combined, Russia and Ukraine represent respectively 30%, 20% and 80% of the world’s wheat, maize and vegetable oil exports. Italy can meet 65% of its grain needs, which leaves it vulnerable to external factors.
For Italian-Canadians, the tragedy in Eastern Europe resonates twofold
The tragedy doubly resonates for Italian-Canadians due to memories of war time internment and the major influx of immigrants from the region. A few years after the interment, Canada reopened its doors and Italians came in their tens of thousands, many of them refugees from the Istrian Peninsula, Fiume-Rijeka and Dalmatia, a mixed Italian-Croatian-Slovene region once part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, annexed by Italy in 1919, and ceded to then Yugoslavia in 1947. Now it’s another region and people paying the price of clashing nationalisms.
Given its experiences, in Canada, Italian-language media could not but cover the Ukraine crisis, especially the fate of refugees.
Toronto-based daily Corriere Canadese (04/03/2022) reported that the Polish-Canadian community began mobilizing to help Ukrainians. Over 2.5 tonnes of supplies were collected and set to be shipped to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees. The daily also reported that Italians in Toronto are raising funds for the Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great at the Monastery of Sts. Peter and Paul in Zaporizhzhia (eastern Ukraine) who have decided to stay to help refugees.
Corriere Canadese (10/03/2022) looked at the unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with almost 24,000 refugees in Italy two weeks into the crisis, and published a vignette on Britain’s failure to take in refugees. Montreal-based Il Corriere Italiano weekly (10/03/2022) also looked at the refugee situation in Italy, noting that in the first 10 days of the war, about 15,000 Ukrainians had arrived in Italy, mostly going to Rome, Milan, Bologna and Naples, cities with important Ukrainian immigrant communities.
Italian Canadian columnists bring a historical perspective to the conflict
Most are critical of the lack of this perspective in the evaluation of the current situation.
In the Montreal based weekly newspaper, Il Cittadino Canadese (16/03/2022), Claudio Antonelli remarks that Russia’s aggression undermines the established wisdom that walls had to be removed, that we are all citizens of the world, a view held by many in Italy as well. He says this war has also undermined another sacred cow, the Western feminist-progressive idea that the differences between the two sexes were reactionary and anti-historical. Instead, the Ukraine war seems to have reinforced the male-female divide since only women and children are allowed to leave the country. Given this discrimination, feminists should be in the streets to protest. Ukrainians in Ukraine face down Russian soldiers, calling them “Fascists go home”, while for Putin, Ukraine is full of fascists, a country in need of denazification.
In another Il Cittadino Canadese column, “Ukraine: history bites back”, Claudio Antonelli says Putin is an invader and a butcher, but his claims deserve to be known a little better. Some scholars and thinkers have analyzed Putin's reasons, warning us in vain about what could happen. The idea that peace on earth should prevail failed to consider the relentless logic of the balance of power between the major world powers. “In the age of the here and now, Putin and Zelensky are throwbacks to the past. History is back, tragically back, and therefore present.”
In the March 9 edition of Il Cittadino Canadese, Angelo Persichilli says the question that must be asked is whether the madness of Russian President Vladimir Putin has developed in recent months or already existed, but the West turned a blind eye to it. In short, all the signs about Putin were there, except it was convenient not to see them. One thing, however, is certain: Putin is a war criminal and will have to be treated as such when the weapons fall silent.
In an editorial in Corriere Canadese, former federal minister and editor Joe Volpe “cuts through the haze” between Ukraine and Russia saying the Canadian House of Commons’ debate on Ukraine on February 28 was full of emotion, condemnation for the aggressors, and “rah-rah” for the “underdogs” but short on specific facts in terms of concrete actions to support Ukraine economically and militarily. Volpe also says that the amount of “sacrifice” the Canadian population is willing to endure for that commitment is more pressing. Canadians would face repercussions of economic sanctions in areas like oil and gas, the price of both of which has increased.
Furthermore, Volpe remarks that “the tendency to ennoble the Ukrainians and vilify the Russians does not help us better understand the dynamics.”
This is a wise reflection in Canada where both communities must coexist.
Domenico Maceri in Corriere Canadese (16/03/2022) says Putin and the West are dominated by reciprocal fear.
After almost a month of war, it’s anybody’s guess when it will be over. The refugees will keep coming though. Like my grandmother.
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