• Vittoria Blanco

A Reflection on Solidarity with Indigenous Communities from an Italian-Canadian Perspective

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

By Vittoria Blanco


This post is part of a series of student responses to the event Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation, which took place on February 24th 2021.


We feature these pieces of writing as part of an ongoing conversation in the Italian-Canadian community on our relationship with Indigenous peoples. We are mindful that we are on a learning journey with one another and that the writing within this blog reflects an ongoing, iterative learning process. We welcome feedback on any of the pieces of writing contained herein.


During my final semester of my undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto I chose to take a course on Italian-Canadian culture and identity. As a second-generation immigrant on both sides of my family – and Italian on one – my upbringing has been shaped by a mesh of cultures and varying perspectives that are often separated by generations. This experience is not mine alone as most Canadians are either immigrants themselves or have descended from immigrants. Growing up in Canada, I was not encouraged to think critically about the history and construction of this country. Consequently, the impact that Canada’s violent historical legacy of colonization has had and continues to have on Indigenous peoples was largely minimized and often ignored. This course forced me to question the assumptions I had about Italian-Canadian culture and identity. It also made me further question the construction of “Canadian identity” and the narratives many Canadians are taught to accept. Our class was invited to a webinar called Indigenous-Italian Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation. The purpose of the event was to listen to a conversation between eight individuals within Indigenous and/or Italian-Canadian communities. The conversation worked to explore Indigenous-Italian-Canadian connections through story-telling and personal reflection. Similarities between Indigenous and Italian-Canadian communities were highlighted, such as the emphasis on family and faith. Difficulties regarding the connections between the communities were also discussed, including the unique hardships that accompany a mixed heritage. In my opinion, the most important connections made between Indigenous and Italian-Canadian communities during the event were of identity and allyship. These are complex concepts that do not necessarily have one concrete definition that fits everyone. Defining identity and allyship is a dynamic, subjective endeavour that looks different for different people.


Regarding identity, it was discussed during the event that some panelists experience

difficulty constructing an Indigenous and Italian-Canadian identity. Describing their experience as an Indigenous-Italian woman, one panelist discusses having to reconcile their white-passing privilege with the understanding that this privilege has also meant a loss of Indigenous culture. The panelists reminded us that having important conversations that elevate the voices of Indigenous Peoples are an important aspect of building solidarity and promoting Indigenous knowledges and cultures. One panelist stated that “our ancestors live in every cell of our body” and that we hold their stories, traumas, and the lessons learned from their experiences within us. Therefore, how we allow our history to inform our current behaviour is up to us. This part of the discussion taught me that the construction of identity is complex but that it is also a significantly personal journey. Our identity is connected to our allyship as recognizing our privileges and our ancestral past can contribute to an interconnected sense of identity that enables us to better practice solidarity with Indigenous communities.


The idea of allyship and building solidarity is extremely relevant in the current societal climate. But what does it truly mean? From a settler’s perspective, allyship is usually well intentioned but often misguided and misused as it may not centre reparations or the demands of Indigenous peoples and Nations. We may have our own preconceptions of what it looks like based on our personal conversations and experiences, however this event was an opportunity to hear directly from Indigenous people regarding what allyship from the Italian-Canadian community to Indigenous communities can and should look like. Some suggestions of what allyship entails included: acknowledging basic truths regarding the treatment of Indigenous Peoples, being cognizant of the language used to address and discuss Indigenous Peoples, and the need for settlers to ultimately bear the responsibility for learning how to be allies. It is also important to recognize that allyship is not simply a label that we use to describe ourselves or something that we believe we are. Genuine allyship requires solidarity through our actions, and solidarity requires us to commit to including Indigenous voices in our activism and daily intentions. Solidarity encompasses the bridging of social realities, whereby you think about and evaluate different social realities and eventually “bridge” them together from opposite sides to meet in the middle at a point of understanding and/or shared experiences. Many within the Italian-Canadian community may not initially believe that any aspects of their social realities could be bridged together with the social realities of Indigenous peoples, however the virtual event proved otherwise. I witnessed genuine solidarity during the event as the panelists connected on shared experiences and values, such as the role of family and faith.


Multiple panelists discussed that many basic truths about the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada are either unknown or ignored. Therefore, allyship starts with a recognition that as settlers we are guests on this land and that Indigenous peoples are the original inhabitants and caretakers of this land. It is also crucial to acknowledge that most – if not all – Canadian societal institutions have been formed through a violent process of settler-colonialism that continues to perpetuate harm against Indigenous Peoples. When asked about how the Italian-Canadian community could practice allyship with Indigenous communities, multiple panelists spoke about the power of language. Harmful words and stereotypes against Indigenous peoples have become normalized in Canadian society and they perpetuate our unconscious biases. As panelists Mattias Nunno, Agnese Escalona, and Dr. Phillips discussed, it is important to call out people when they use derogatory or harmful language about Indigenous peoples. They also express the importance of referring to Indigenous Nations by their appropriate names, instead of homogenizing all Indigenous peoples as if there were no distinctions between them. This is important because by addressing Indigenous Nations by their name, we can contribute to a shift in societal perspective, which recognizes the cultural and historical differences between different Indigenous Nations across Turtle Island.


Finally, panelist Julia Giraudi emphasized an important point regarding allyship within the Italian-Canadian community. She stated that it is not the job of Indigenous people to tell settlers how to be allies, as this may be further burdensome. Although the panelists did provide excellent starting points and suggestions towards what allyship entails, it was emphasized that settler advocacy should not be informed by a paternalistic desire to ‘help’ Indigenous people.


Paternalism is an important concept to consider within this discussion. It can exist on both an individual and collective level and its role within colonization should not be ignored. One of the readings assigned for this class is particularly relevant to this discussion. “Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s-1960s” by Heidi Bohaker and France Iacovetta discussed how paternalism towards Indigenous peoples manifested within Canada on a broad scale, primarily within Canada’s Department of Citizenship and Immigration. The Department attempted to equate the experiences of newcomers to Canada with Indigenous peoples in the early-mid 20th century, effectively labelling Indigenous people as immigrants and treating them as such (Bohaker & Iacovetta, 2009). They tried to “Canadian-ize” Indigenous people and newcomers by creating a one-size-fits-all pathway to Canadian citizenship. However, the programs they implemented impacted newcomers and Indigenous people differently. For newcomers, cultural pluralism was encouraged, and valuable vocational training was provided. Comparatively, “Indian Affairs encouraged the adoption of white middle-class values but structured educational opportunities to ensure that these [Indigenous] young people remained firmly in the working class and were best ‘qualified’ to work in […] unskilled positions” (Bohaker & Iacovetta, 2009, p. 446-447). This demonstrates that while European identities were respected, Indigenous identity was not. Instead, policies from the Canadian Department of Citizenship and Immigration sought to absorb Indigenous culture into a multicultural framework. These policies were paternalistic as they viewed Indigeneity as something that not only had to be fixed but had to be fixed using Canadian societal values. This reading complimented the event as it provided historical context to the real-life experiences of the panelists and their families. It is important to understand that both the individual and systemic harm that is continuously perpetuated against Indigenous communities is rooted in ongoing processes of settler-colonialism.


Going forward, I will practice solidarity guided by the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. I will do this by listening to their stories, perspectives, and needs and trying my best to unlearn any internalized biases and paternalistic attitudes towards Indigenous Peoples. I believe that the first step settlers can take towards genuine allyship is to talk less and listen more.


References

Bohaker, H., & Iacovetta, F. (2009). Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s-1960s. The Canadian Historical Review 90(3), 427-461. doi: 10.3138/chr.90.3.427.