Drawing Connections: The Relationship between Indigenous Peoples and Italians in Canada
Updated: Jan 17
By Erica Vardaro
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.
Although Canada prides itself on being a generous and hospitable multicultural society, the country has always been very selective of whom it accepts and welcomes with open arms. The Nation’s criteria for the perfect citizen largely depends on matters of identity, place of origin, and cultural values. Each group of settlers faced their own set of challenges as they learned to navigate an environment that was completely new to them. For instance, Italians that migrated to Canada have historically been expected to give up parts of their identity to comply with Anglo-Saxon norms. This meant limiting the use of Italian languages and practicing family traditions in private spaces to avoid public disapproval. However, Italians who benefited from the phenotypical privileges of whiteness were able to quickly assimilate and accumulate cultural capital due to the fact that their racial identity aligns well with Canada’s white settler colonialism. On the other hand, Indigenous peoples, who are native to this land, have always been subject to a different set of policies with respect to their ways of knowing. When white settlers began occupying their territory and assumed control over their day-to-day lives, Indigenous freedom and sovereignty were completely compromised. Their land and resources were exploited for the purpose of advancing the economic and social pursuits of the settlers, leaving them with little power to sustain themselves.
Despite the immediate challenges of adapting to the norms of a new country, over the years, Italians were able to overcome discrimination and reinstate many aspects of their culture into the Canadian mainstream. Italians are now widely recognized and respected across the Nation as demonstrated by statues and establishments dedicated to Italian explorers like Cristoforo Colombo and Giovanni Caboto. In contrast, Indigenous peoples continue to fight to maintain and protect their cultural ways of life because their traditional values and practices do not conform to the socially constructed ideals of whiteness. The idea of honouring and upholding Indigenous sovereignty threatens the very core of Canada’s national project because it would recognize the fact that Indigenous cultures have their own social, political, and legal structures that can operate independently from settler capitalism and the colonial imagination.
In 2010, Bill 103: The Italian Heritage Month Act was established to help recognize Italian Canadians’ significant contributions to the growth and prosperity of Ontario. Every year since, the month of June is filled with festivities to help honour people of Italian heritage. Acts like this help reconcile instances of xenophobia Italians faced during early waves of migration. During this month, I personally find it challenging to celebrate my ethnicity when I know that others continue to be oppressed, targeted, and criminalized because of their ethnic identities. This past June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made a formal apology on behalf of the government of Canada for its role in the WWII internment of Italian Canadians. Rather than simply settling for apologies, we must learn from our own experiences and demand that no other person be mistreated on the basis of their ethnicity and status on this land.
It is disappointing that Canada continuously fails to honour the treaty agreements made with Indigenous peoples who have been caretakers of the land we live on for centuries. Historians Heidi Bohaker and Franca Iacovetta help clarify this disparity by highlighting how Canada’s one-size-fits-all assimilation programs have always been less tolerant of the cultural differences of Indigenous peoples than those of European refugees and immigrants. The authors go on to explain the process whereby Indigenous peoples were also labelled as immigrants by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration (DCI) and how the Indian Affairs branch was modeled after Canadian citizenship campaigns from 1950 to 1966. Considering that Indigenous peoples and their cultural values are viewed as a threat, Canadian ministry officials sought to minimize their precedent on the land by legislatively absorbing them into a multicultural framework, where Indigenous peoples were considered as just another ethnic group within a “country of immigrants.”
In Canada, June also happens to be National Indigenous History Month. For Italians, this month represents a celebration of achievements, while for Indigenous peoples, it is not only an occasion for celebration, but a time to raise awareness of the injustices that they are still facing. Although Canada’s Liberal government appears to publicly applaud Indigenous cultural practices in the media, it is important to question whether these actions are motivated by performative politics and simply used to disguise the lack of meaningful policy put in place to support Indigenous communities across the Nation. For this reason, it is imperative to take a moment to look beyond our Italian-Canadian community’s accomplishments and instead, use our position of privilege to stand in solidarity with others. Given that Italian settlers in Canada occupy positions of social, economic, and political power, we have the opportunity to influence systematic changes in the way that our country operates.
In recent years, scholars have been drawing connections between immigrant groups and Indigenous peoples to uncover how they are perceived in contemporary society. During a webinar titled Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation, Dr. Anna Mongibello, professor, author, and researcher at the University of Naples “L’Orientale”, spoke about cultural misrepresentation and the negative connotations of stereotypes related to both Italians and Indigenous peoples. She brought up the example of a new art installation located in Toronto’s Little Italy that lists a handful of broad terms used to define Italian identity. For instance, the sign reads: fun, party, passion, laughter, memories, and eat. While this installation paints Italians in a positive light, it also overgeneralizes an entire ethnic group and depicts an idealized version of what people imagine Italian culture to be. Dr. Mongibello argues that we lose the multiplicity of our identity when a handful of stereotypes come to define who we are. Comparatively, the public’s understanding of Indigenous peoples in Canada appears to be frozen in time. As a society, we have yet to move beyond inaccurate stereotypes that erase the complex realities and diverse cultures of Indigenous peoples. For this reason, Indigenous peoples still struggle to gain acceptance by the mainstream because their traditional knowledges appear to be unfit for Canada’s Eurocentric framework. While Italians and Indigenous peoples are both culturally judged and defined based on historical stereotypes, the difference is that the stereotypes associated with Indigenous peoples are rooted in racism.
Today, “Italian” culture has come to be associated with timeless traditions, luxury, and sophistication. Even the negative Italian mobster stereotype has been debunked, to the point where criminals are perceived as admirable and heroic outlaws due to the rise of mafia-inspired television shows and movies. As such, the positive representation of Italians in the mainstream was only made possible because their cultural practices and beliefs align well with global capitalist interests. Unfortunately, Indigenous peoples never had the same opportunity as Italian immigrants to improve their social standing because their way of life challenges the foundation of the Nation.
As a member of the Italian-Canadian community, I acknowledge that I am a guest on this land and that it is my responsibility to listen and learn from Indigenous peoples. At the webinar, Dr. Robert Philips, a Miꞌkmaq scholar and artist, recalled his relationship with an Italian-Canadian man with whom he worked. He spoke about a not-so-distant past where he worked alongside an Italian-Canadian who took the time to truly mentor him in his field of manual labour. The two were able to look beyond misinformed judgements and mutually respect one another because they both understood what it felt like to be alienated and excluded. Over the years, the public’s perceptions of Italians began to reshape as they helped contribute to the economic and social success of Canadian society. Since many Indigenous peoples are opposed to the capitalist labour market and refuse to partake in ecologically violent and anti-egalitarian practices, they continue to be marginalized and oppressed. That said, I believe that we can learn from the relationship building Dr. Philips and his co-worker displayed by challenging stereotypes, appreciating cultural differences, and being open to different ways of knowing. As settlers, we must make it our obligation to uphold our treaty relationship with Indigenous peoples and view them as our equals. To do so, we can start by educating Canadians about Canada’s cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, returning land to Indigenous Nations, allocating substantial funding to Indigenous communities, and recognizing the sovereignty of Indigenous Nations. Only when this is done, can we strive toward meaningful reconciliation.