Held without trial in Montreal: Stewart Museum recalls Italian internment during WWII

Japan signed formal surrender documents aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945, officially ending the Second World War 75 years ago.

On Ile Ste-Helen, a structure formerly known as Internment Camp S-43 stands as a key historical link between Montreal and these events in Europe and Asia.

Built in the 1820s, the structure first served as storage space for army artillery and was transformed into a prison camp during the Second World War.

By July 1940, about 400 Italian prisoners who had been living in England and Scotland arrived in Montreal and were housed in the camps.

"They were sent here with no trials, no nothing, actually," said Stewart Museum guide Ariane Bousquet.

"They were just arrested because the British government was scared of them. They were considered enemies or potential fascists or probably spies."

Prisoners ate, slept and worked on the grounds for three years.

"They had the chance to work if they wanted to for 20 cents per day," said historian Maryse Bedard. "They would work building wood cabinets. They would do some bandages for the Red Cross."

Prisoner Guiseppe Pieri wrote a memoire detailing his experience living at what was considered a small internment camp.

He provided invaluable historic information, often hard to obtain, on living conditions at the camp.

"After the war they went back to their families and they didn’t want to talk about it anymore, so there’s not a lot of biographies that talk about that experience," said Bedard.

"For most of them they wanted to just put that behind."

Some tried to escape by swimming or digging their way out of the camp and then walking south.

"What they tried to do before the United States entered the war is to reach the States because it was a neutral country," said Bedard. "What they would do is escape and then walk."

The building is now the Stewart Museum. It's complete with an old prison cell door meant to remind visitors of life in Montreal for those held without trial simply due to their nationality.

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