Italian moved to Okanagan with hope; he ended up being sent to a WWII internment camp

Raymond Lenzi shares his grandfather’s story ahead of Canada’s planned formal apology to Italian-Canadians

Federico Lenzi moved to Kelowna from Italy in 1926 with the hope of starting a new life.

While seeing Canada as a land of opportunity, it would eventually be the country where he was torn from his family and placed in an internment camp during the Second World War.

As shared by his grandson Raymond Lenzi, Federico’s story is similar to those of many Italian-Canadians who lived through the war — tragedies that have prompted plans for a formal apology from the Canadian government later this month.

Accused of sympathizing with the enemy

Raymond said his grandfather’s first job in Canada was managing an orchard in Kelowna for a man in the Canadian Armed Forces named Major Hutton.

“Major Hutton took a liking to him,” explained Raymond. “He knew my grandfather had farming experience.”

Eventually, Federico had saved enough money to bring his pregnant wife and three children over from Italy and buy his own 15-acre fruit farm by Summerland Station.

In the late 1930s, political tensions began to escalate. After Italy allied with Germany in 1940, more than 600 Italian-Canadians suspected to be fascist sympathizers were sent to internment camps, according to the Canadian government. Around 31,000 more were registered as “enemy aliens.”

While tending to his farm, Federico also worked at an apple box-making factory part-time. During a conversation at work about the Second World War, someone accused Federico of being a Benito Mussolini supporter. Although Federico denied the accusation, in August 1940, he was sent to an internment camp in the Kananaskis area, about 80 kilometres west of Calgary, Alberta.

(Story continues below.)

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)

Italian-Canadian prisoners at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (University of Calgary/Contributed)

Guards at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

Guards at the Kananaskis prisoner of war camp in Alberta. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

The government seized Federico’s farm while he was interned, though his family continued to work the land under federal custody.

Federico spent his days of internment chopping wood under the supervision of a single guard. One day, that guard had a heart attack. Despite the opportunity to escape, Federico and the other men rushed their captor back to the compound.

“Someone asked him, ‘Why didn’t you run, Fred?’ and he said ‘I want to be a Canadian.’” Raymond said.

After a year, Federico was released from the camp after a ‘higher up’ in the army wrote a letter vouching for him. Raymond believes it was the same man who gave Federico his first job, Major Hutton.

Upon returning home, he received a bill from the government for holding custody of the property. Over the years, Federico didn’t tell his family much about his internment experiences.

“My grandfather told me a few things about it, but it’s part of the culture not to complain,” said Raymond. “He was a proud Canadian. He never spoke bad about our country, despite what happened.”

(Story continues below.)

Federico “Fred” Lenzi’s internment documents. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

Federico “Fred” Lenzi’s internment documents. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

‘They deserve closure’

This month, the Lenzi family and thousands of other Italian-Canadians will get an apology from the federal government for their treatment during the Second World War.

The government announced plans for the apology after Liberal MP Angelo Iacono raised the issue in the House of Commons on April 14.

“Parents were taken away from their homes, leaving children without their fathers in many cases and families without a paycheque to put food on their tables. Lives and careers, businesses and reputations were interrupted and ruined, and yet no one was held responsible,” said Iacono.

“Italian-Canadians have lived with these memories for many years and they deserve closure,” he added.

The National Congress of Italian-Canadians has been lobbying for an apology like this since the ‘90s. In 1990, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made an unofficial apology at a congress of Italian-Canadians. In 2018, the RCMP issued a Statement of Regret for its participation in the internment. But the community still felt that was not enough.

Gord Hotchkiss, co-chair of the heritage committee at the Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club (KCIC), has researched the internment of Italians in Canada during the Second World War.

“In this case, Federico Lenzi was lucky because he had children who took over the farm while he interned. Not every Italian was as fortunate; in many cases, families lost their businesses and the financial hardship was significant because there was no one to step in for the primary provider while he was being interned,” Hotchkiss explained.

(Story continues below.)

First annual Kelowna Italian club picnic on August 14, 1938. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

First annual Kelowna Italian club picnic on August 14, 1938. (Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club/Contributed)

Through his research, Hotchkiss has found at least 55 of the interned Italian-Canadians were from British Columbia: 44 from Vancouver, seven from Trail, two from Youbou, one from Greenwood — one, Fredrico Lenzi, was from Summerland.

He said the Kelowna Canadian-Italian Club (KCIC) is grateful for the upcoming apology.

“Some of our members and their families were directly impacted by the internment of Italians and the declaration of many others as enemy aliens.”

“Unfortunately for the Italian community, this precipitated a legacy of shame that was in no way earned by either their actions or their loyalties. This apology acknowledges the injustice that led to a dark chapter in the history of Canada’s Italian citizens. We can now turn the page and move on as we always have, continuing to contribute our passion, our culture and our dedication to the community and nation that we have helped to build.”

On the other hand, Raymond feels the upcoming apology is too little, too late.

“They should have apologized to the people they threw in those camps. How many Italians were good, hardworking citizens that helped bring Canada to where it is today?”

In 1988, the federal government formally apologized to Japanese-Canadians and offered $300 million in compensation. Through the Second World War, 22,000 Japanese-Canadians were interned.

Prime Minister Trudeau and the Government of Canada have not yet scheduled a date for the apology.

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