Written by Riccardo Lo Monaco
The word ‘Fascism’ can evoke images of soldiers marching, Benito Mussolini shouting, and the guns of World War II blazing, but it is not typically associated with the identity struggles of Italians in Canada. Yet, before World War II, some Italians living in major Canadian cities like Toronto embraced the Fascist movement, as echoed through a mutual benefits society called the Order Sons of Italy of Ontario (OSIO). Fascism was considered by them a positive force which offered Italians national pride and respect in times of cultural strife. Other Italians in Canada opposed the spread of fascist ideology, a viewpoint accentuated when war exposed the evils associated with it. The reaction against fascism, in fact, could be said to have indirectly catalyzed the post-war movement of Italian-Canadians toward an acceptance of cultural pluralism.
At the turn of the twentieth century, in western Europe and elsewhere, there developed a trend of “scientific racism” – an effort to rank nationalities according to superiority based on biological factors. In Toronto, those of British descent made use of their self-assumed racial superiority to hinder the progress of newcomers. Italians, with Torontonians of other ethnic identities, were called derisive names and denied jobs on the premise of race. For Italians, the pressure to assimilate in order to avoid discrimination contrasted with the desire to retain the Italian culture they arrived with, driving many to search for a way of coping with their faltering sense of self.
In response to their hardships, and with a mission to “unite in one single family all the Italians scattered throughout the Americas,” a small group in New York City formed the “Order Sons of Italy” in 1905 as an apolitical organization. The first Canadian lodge opened in Ontario in 1915. Beyond moral support, the OSIO offered important services to its dues-paying members, securing mutual sick benefits, mortuary insurance and funeral services prior to the introduction of provincial and federal health plans.
The OSIO experienced early growth, with nine new lodges by 1925, but the following decade saw somewhat of a decline. The Great Depression, in particular, made it difficult for many unemployed Italian immigrants to pay their dues. Despite unemployment, however, a sudden surge in the OSIO’s membership numbers took place after 1936. The economy continued to suffer and politicians continued to debate immigration. Yet, from 1936 to 1940 the OSIO chartered seventeen new lodges in Ontario – including the Patronato Lodge of Toronto – nearly tripling the total number in the province.
What changed in the mid-1930s to spark such dramatic growth? Whereas the administration of mutual benefits consumed most of the OSIO’s earlier years, the mid-1930s saw an increasing drive to unite the Italian Community through the preservation and promotion of their culture—lest it be dissolved under the pressure of assimilation from the dominant Canadian culture. In order to escape the mistreatment they encountered in society, Italian immigrants wished to abandon the negative connotations of being ‘Italian’ but not their Italian identity. Positive expressions of Italian identity were welcomed. Enter Fascism.
Without the knowledge of imminent ideological war, Fascism was actually viewed positively by many at the time. In Toronto, Fascism drew adherents from different social classes, and Italian Fascists were treated with respect. For many Canadians, Fascism was merely an ideology that promoted pride and progress and opposed the threat of a Bolshevik revolution. Through the efforts of Fascist diplomats and their commitment to the glorification of the Italian origins of immigrants in Canada, those who had previously felt like foreigners in Toronto could feel proud of their dual identity.
At its 1934 ‘Grand Convention’, the OSIO officially aligned with Fascism when members elected supporters of Fascism as governing officers of the order. The Fascist Italian Consul General Petrucci announced that “The Order Sons of Italy is today an unshakable guard of Italian and Fascist ideals in all of North America.” Other evidence of Fascist infiltration in the OSIO can be found in the architecture and names of some of its buildings which bear abundant Fascist symbols across their façades. The Casa d’Italia on Beverley Street in Toronto, in particular, was a contentious space moving into World War II, and a centre of Fascist influence. It was simultaneously the Italian embassy for the city, regularly hosting Fascist diplomats from Italy, and the centre of the OSIO’s activities.
The majority of OSIO members hastened to disassociate themselves from the order and all things Fascist to avoid internment and hostility. Immediately following the arrests and closures, the remaining lodges felt the need to show their allegiance to Canada in the war effort. A document dated April 25, 1942 – detailing a request from the Toronto branch of the Canadian Red Cross Society for funds to provide aid for soldiers – shows that the Order had donated as early as 1941 for the relief of Russia from damages incurred during the Nazi invasions. This suggests that the OSIO had backed away from Fascism and its sharp opposition to Communism.
The OSIO always demonstrated a strong philanthropic desire in its various endeavours. The policies created by the OSIO, and the services it offered helped its Italian-Canadian members to locate and identify their worth in broader society. That said, the organization that once represented solidarity among Italian Canadians became increasingly divisive as it became more explicitly aligned with Fascism, and therefore more political. As opposition to Mussolini and his Italian fascism mounted during the 1930s, the OSIO became increasingly controversial, and may have alienated many Torontonians of Italian descent. In response, the OSIO changed its orientation and its goals again, placing a greater emphasis on charity and adjustment to broader Canadian society.
The needs of Italian immigrants in Toronto changed in response to their cultural and political climate. Their struggle with identity as a symptom of the migration process led them to join political currents that provided them with the most confidence and comfort. Although Fascism enjoyed a few years of popularity in Toronto, it was defeated here just as it was overseas. As a by-product, Italian immigrants joined the push for the acceptance of cultural pluralism that would lead to the establishment of official Multiculturalism in 1971 and would eventually allow them to find acceptance and respect as ‘Italian-Canadians’, not just Italians living in Canada.
Gabriele Scardellato, Within Our Temple: A History of the Order of the Sons of Italy of Ontario, (Order of the Sons of Italy, 1995).
Order of the Sons of Italy of Canada, Archives of Ontario, York University, Toronto
Luigi G. Pennacchio, “Exporting Fascism to Canada”, from Enemies Within, Edited by Franca Iacovetta, Roberto Perin and Angela Principe, (University of Toronto Press, 2000) pg. 52-75.
Angel Principe, The Darkest Side of the Fascists Years: The Italian-Canadian Press: 1920-1942. (Guernica, 1999).
Interview of Gabriele Scardellato, Oct 29, 2012
Heritage Toronto is pleased to acknowledge the support of the Government of Ontario, through the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, for this project.