April 23,1998

Filippo Salvatore stirs up memories of fascism

by Barbara Black

A close-knit community in a period of intense political ferment, with jealousies and recriminations simmering: What better setting for a book, a play, or a scholarly article?

Professor Filippo Salvatore, who teaches Italian in the Department of Classics, Modern Languages and Linguistics, is fascinated by the first wave of Italian immigrants to Montreal and how they viewed charismatic dictator Benito Mussolini. In 1987, Salvatore interviewed a group of old-timers, some of them sworn enemies. The English-language version of these interviews has just been published, as Fascism and the Italians of Montreal: An Oral History, 1922-1945 (Guernica Press).

"Fascism was an evil beast," Salvatore said sombrely. But his book shows how easily it became synonymous with national pride, or italianità. Italy in the 1920s and '30s was badly drifting, and anxious Italians, including those in Canada, were glad to see a man of action at the helm.

Dieni Gentile, a proud fascist to the end, told Salvatore that most Italian Montrealers were pro-fascist well into the war (which started, for the Italians, in 1940); more moderate contemporaries disagreed.

Many, however, suggested that the wartime internment of about 200 Italian Montrealers as "enemy aliens" came about because three people gave names to the RCMP. One person they named was Antonino Spada, a crusading anti-fascist journalist. Spada vigourously denied that he was an informer in his interview, and denounced his enemies in vitriolic language.

For Salvatore, presenting these clashing opinions verbatim was the only way to approach the truth. He also wanted to show the context of this family quarrel, both anglophone and francophone, so he interviewed the novelist Hugh MacLennan and Senator Maurice Riel.

MacLennan was a strong anti-fascist, but on the whole, Salvatore said, English-Canadians were sanguine toward Mussolini until war was declared. What shocked him is the complacency with which even the liberal elite treated the internment of about 600 hapless Italians from across Canada in camps at Petawawa and Fredericton.

As Salvatore's book makes clear, the round-up was a hit-and-miss affair. Gentile, the fascist, considered it his due, and talked about it dispassionately. But for lawyer Mario Lattoni, who was an anti-fascist and a fervent Canadian, the internship was an outrage, still rankling nearly 50 years after it occurred. As another interviewee put it, "This alarmist perception [that Italian Canadians presented a security threat] was due to a flagrant lack of familiarity with the Italian community."

That speaker is an auxiliary bishop of Montreal, and his presence in the book raises another of Salvatore's themes, the huge shadow cast by the Roman Catholic Church, who preferred Marshal Petain to General de Gaulle, opposed wartime conscription into the Canadian Forces -- and didn't discourage local Italians from supporting Mussolini.

In 1985, Salvatore wrote a play, La Fresque de Mussolini, based on the fact that a fresco was painted in a Montreal North church which includes Mussolini heroically astride a charging steed. Producers expressed interest in mounting the play -- until they read it, and discovered that communist Norman Bethune was the hero, and that (in the play, at least) Mussolini was painted at the suggestion of nationalist historian Abbé Lionel Groulx. "They were shocked," Salvatore recalled impishly.

Told that the wartime internment of the Italian-Canadians has inspired another local playwright, Salvatore exclaimed, "Good! Good!" Vittorio Rossi, the pride of Ville Émard for his gritty domestic dramas, will give Paradise by the River its premiere at the Centaur Theatre on April 28.

When Le Fascisme et les Italiens à Montréal was published in 1995, it generated quite a buzz. "The Italian Cultural Institute was packed," Salvatore recalled. "I also gave a presentation at [Concordia's] School of Community and Public Affairs, and many of those attending were the children of men who had been interned." Radio-Canada is now using his research for a television mini-series.

Salvatore himself is part of the second great wave of Italian immigration to Canada, having arrived as a child with his family in 1960. He attended English public schools, studied literature and history at McGill University, and went on to Harvard, where he did his MA and PhD, and did his thesis on the quarrel between ancients and moderns in early 17th-century Rome.

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