Canada’s Italian community takes giving back to heart

By Cheryl Long

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While devoting a good portion of its time to networking, fundraising and organizing social events, there’s a far more serious side to the Canadian Italian Business Professional Association (CIBPA). This summer, the organization launched a special project to put in front of the public eye the story of Canadian citizens of Italian heritage who were interned during the Second World War. This was done through a new documentary that was screened in Toronto at the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Bell Lightbox event.

TitledPiazza Petawawa: The Paradox, the documentary takes the viewer through the trauma, hardship and heartbreak endured by more than 700 Canadians of Italian heritage during their detainment and internment initiated June 10, 1940 in a Petawawa, Ontario concentration camp. Produced by acclaimed photographer Rino Noto as part of a joint project with the CIBPA, the 28-minute film was shown during the Italian Contemporary Film Festival (ICFF) on June 17 and offers an enlightening, if not startling, look at an event that isn’t a commonly known part of Canadian history.

A longer version of the documentary is available at each of the CIBPA’s 10 chapters and at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Efforts are currently underway to have the film broadcast on television and made available to Canadian schools.

“…men were taken (from their homes) in the middle of the night without any indication of where they were going or how long they were going to be away.Their bank accounts were frozen so that the wives that were left behind and the children couldn’t take money out of the bank to buy bread; you had Canadian citizens that lost good public jobs because they were (of)Italian (heritage),”said Bob Sacco, President of the National Federation of CIBPAs. “The prejudice that happened is unbelievable.”

“There are three questions that the film’s producers want their audience to consider: Did you know about the issue?What are your thoughts about what happened?and How canwe make sure that it never happens again?” Sacco said.

One of the key people interviewed in the documentary is the Honourable Frank Iacobucci, retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, who is “very passionate about the fact that these were Canadian citizens without due process… it’s sort of a stain on the reputation of Canada,” Sacco added.

Internment and immigration were two of the reasons why the CIBPA was formed in Montreal back in 1949. As the new home of the largest number of Italian immigrants arriving in Canada, Montreal soon became the hub of the Canadian Italian business community and, as the founding chapter, the Montreal CIBPAoffered support and encouragement to families looking for a place a live, schooling for their children, and opportunities to find work or launch their own businesses, Sacco said.

The Toronto CIBPA was formedthree years later in 1952.In 1983, the Montreal and Toronto chapters established the National Federation of CIBPAs, which soon expanded with additional chapters throughout Ontario and one in Winnipeg.One of the organization’s key mandates is to support their respective local communities and, to date, they’ve collectively contributed close to $9 million to charitable organizations and education programs in and outside of Canada.

Members of the CIBPA — a combination of individuals and corporations —helped raise money for the April 6, 2009 Abruzzo Earthquake Relief programand for the construction of a medical research facility specializing in cancer treatment at the University of L’Aquila in Italy. The CIBPA also has ongoing programs that provide bursaries to students of Italian heritage andstudents enrolled in Italian studies. It has also set up endowments with several post-secondary institutions including York University, Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, Sacco said.

“We also work with community outreach programs such as the Vitanova Foundation and Caritas to help financially support people aiming to further their education.More recently, the CIBPA made contributions to the Marcus Cirillo Trust through the True Patriot Love Foundation”to aid the young son of Corporal Nathan Cirillo who was killed at Parliament Hill in Ottawa in October 2014, he added.

Working as a separate entity, but alongside the Toronto CIBPA, is the CIBPA Ladies’ Auxiliary, which was founded in Toronto in 1953 by Jackie Rosati, who remains a key member of the organization. Last year, Rosati made a $5,000 Ladies’ Auxiliary donation to the CIBPA,which will be used to provide three educational bursaries to the families of fallen military personnel. This will be done through Canada Company, a charitable organization that works with businesses, community leaders and the Canadian military, Sacco said.

The Ladies’ Auxiliary has its own mandate for social responsibility, raising and donating funds to support the community. Moda in Motion, launched in 1982, is the group’s signature fashion event. It attracts up to 800 attendees annually and has contributed thousands of dollars over the years to charitable groups such as the ALS Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Thalassemia Foundation of Canada.

Giving back to the community, supporting students in their pursuit of education and furthering the business successes of its members are objectives that the CIBPA embraces wholeheartedly.

“There’s a funny thing. When I looked at my university degree, it says: ‘with all its rights, privileges and obligations’ and if you look at your citizenship paper — because I was born in Italy and came over at a very young age — it says: ‘with all its rights, privileges and obligations’.So citizenship and education come with benefits as well as requirements to be good corporate citizens,” Sacco concluded.

“We tell our students that the money we give them isn’t simply a gift without any strings. Our expectations are that when they become successful, they pay it back to another student,” headded.

The CIBPA has always had a good relationship with different levels of government, and has been routinely involved in conversations surrounding immigration and related issues. “With the recent change in federal government, the CIBPA is hoping to maintain those channels of communication and discuss efforts to make the immigration process smoother for Italians interested in coming to Canada,”Sacco explained.

To learn more about the CIBPA, or to find out how to view the Piazza Petawawa documentary, visit