On Thursday, Prime Minister Trudeau issued a formal apology for the internment of Italian Canadians during the Second World War. News reports of the day indicate that since the outbreak of the War in September 1939, Canadian officials had kept German and Italian Canadians under surveillance in an effort to document anyone who appeared subversive. When Italy and Canada declared War on June 10, 1940, the Mounties and local police forces conducted raids on the homes of individuals they have been watching and rounded up about 700 Italian-Canadians. In Toronto they were herded to a building on the CNE grounds and then shipped to an internment camp at Petawawa. Former Hamilton councillor, the late Vince Agro documented the Hamilton version of events in his book, The Good Doctor. In that account Agro says there were active Fascist agents operating in Canada, seeking to enlist activists, but their numbers were small and their overtures were rejected by the majority of Italians in Canada. Many Italian-Canadians, including Agro’s bother John, joined the Canadian Forces and served with distinction.
One of the most interesting of the Italo-Canadian internees was James (Vincenzo) Franceschini, who at the time of his arrest in 1940 was the multimillionaire owner of Dufferin Construction in Toronto. Born in Pescara, Abruzzo, Italy James came to Canada as a 16-year-old. He started out in construction by digging basements by hand, earning enough money to hire staff and purchase horses, wagons and a steam shovel.
In 1912 he founded Dufferin Construction and moved into the construction of highways, provincial roads, rail lines and suburbs. Within three years Franceschini was already a millionaire at age 25. Newly married, he moved into a 14-acre estate in Mimico called Myrtle Villa named for his daughter who was born in 1921.
As his business and his wealth grew, Franceschini lived like an English squire, developing a stable of hackney ponies, for which he won many medals at the Royal Winter Fair. The society pages were filled with stories of teas and receptions at the Myrtle Villa estate. Newspaper accounts of those who attended these events read like a who’s who of Toronto society, with nary an Italian surname on the lists. James also gave generously to local charities and arts organizations. He even joined the Masons and told some people he was a Protestant.
Franceschini found it beneficial to go into the trucking, asphalt, sand, gravel and fuel businesses to supply Dufferin Construction. By the late 1930s, Franceschini was Canada’s largest road contractor, producer of gravel and ready-made concrete.
Immediately following the start of World War II, Franceschini contacted the Canadian government and placed all the resources of Dufferin Construction and its associated companies at its disposal. At that time, Dufferin Shipbuilding was given a contract to build minesweepers.
But then came Italy’s entry in the war in June 1940. On his return home from a business trip, Franceschini was arrested by two RCMP officers and sent to an internment camp. It was alleged that he had provided hospitality to a Mussolini Cabinet Minister, and had gifted one of his prize horses to Il Duce as well as making other cash gifts to Fascists. A subsequent inquiry cleared him of all those charges. Franceschini had powerful enemies, who were jealous of his success. There were many rumours that Franceschini’s success in getting huge government contracts were greased by the large amounts of cash he kept on hand. It also didn’t help that he was close to Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn, who was hated in Ottawa for his frequent attacks on the leadership of Prime Minister Mackenzie King.
But Franceschini also had powerful friends, including George McCullagh, the owner of the Globe and Mail. The Globe immediately embarked on an editorial campaign to have Franceschini freed. Typical of the editorials, “The fact that Franceschini is alleged to have fattened his purse by political corruption is neither here nor there. The fact that Franceschini was born in Italy…may serve to lull the indignation against (the) arbitrary measures taken against him, but it cannot affect the principle that a man should be tried according to the charge laid against him…” Calling for a review of the case, the Globe and Mail compared the Franceschini case to that of Albert Dreyfus in France. Eventually the government appointed Mr. Justice J.D. Hyndman to prepare a report on the internments. Prime Minister Mackenzie King noted in his diary, “Hyndman feels individuals have been deprived of their freedom, in some cases by unworthy means, without sufficient evidence…There seems little doubt methods of the police (are) in some cases unwarranted.” But he added, “great efforts are being made to free Franceschini…(I) believe this would be quite wrong…”
While in the interment camp Franceschini busied himself doing what he knew best, acting as a foreman on a road gang. With pressure mounting from the Globe and Mail and other powerful friends for the release of the contractor, things took a strange turn in 1942. Franceschini was diagnosed with throat cancer by a fellow inmate, a Dr. Luigi Pancaro, who declared that Franceschini had little time left. Apparently without requiring a second opinion, Franceschini was whisked out of the prison and returned to Toronto on “compassionate grounds” prompting another storm of accusations of hanky-panky in Parliament. Ironically while he was interned. Franceschini’s company had landed $5 Million worth of federal contacts building airports, and his ship building company was building four minesweepers for the Canadian Navy. Franceschini’s cancer apparently went into remission and he lived another 18 years.
As an interesting local sidelight to the Franceschini story, Thomas Baker McQuesten of Hamilton was minister of Highways throughout the 1930s and it was his department that awarded many of the contracts to Franceschini’s Dufferin Construction. If there was any bribing going on, it is highly unlikely that McQuesten, a scrupulously honest man who would not even submit an expense account while a minister, was a beneficiary of cash–a fact borne out by his modest estate at time of his death. But an inventory of objects at Whitehern done when the house was turned over to the city of Hamilton does show a watch on a pencil case given by Franceschini and as McQuesten’s bother who complied the inventory noted, “the painting over the mantel and the white marble lamps in the North-West corner were given him by Jim Franceschini, the millionaire road contractor.”