Indigenous and Italian-Canadian Connections
Updated: Dec 8, 2021
By Chiara Muia
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.
Content warning: This article discusses Residential Schools and intergenerational trauma
Indigenous and Italian-Canadian communities share many similar values and experiences, particularly in regard to their perspectives on community and kinship. Though there are shared experiences between these two communities and their struggles to assimilate into Canadian culture, each has been impacted to varying degrees and under vastly different circumstances. Both communities were forced to conform to Canadian values, traditions and languages; however, Italian-Canadian communities benefited from systemic privileges and were thus afforded more opportunities compared to Indigenous communities.
During an event entitled Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation, on February 24th 2021, several people spoke about what Indigenous and Italian- Canadian connections meant to them and how relations between the two communities could be improved. Throughout the event many people highlighted the similarities between Indigenous communities and Italian-Canadian communities. Matthias Nunno, of both Indigenous and Italian descent, spoke about the shared values between Italian and Ojibwa cultures. According to Nunno, the importance of both family and faith were fundamental values that were imparted to him by both sides of his heritage. Enza Buffa shared a similar sentiment, echoing the parallel experience of her Italian father, and Indigenous mother. Buffa discussed that her parents shared experience of hardships in Canada. Speaking about her father’s life, Buffa expressed the difficulties her father experienced after attempting to recover from the war in Italy and moving to Canada, in which he had to find a sense of belonging. Buffa’s mother also experienced hardships, however, these hardships had to do with her experience living in Canada as an Indigenous person. Whether in regard to their values or their experiences, it is clear that Italian and Indigenous cultures have many similarities, including their history of discrimination and suffering in Canada. However, though both communities experienced marginalization, the degree and reasons for this marginalization varies immensely.
Both Indigenous and Italian-Canadians have, to varying degrees, endured the process of assimilation into Canadian culture. When Italians arrived in Canada during the twentieth century, they were forced to adapt to Canadian values, languages, and traditions. As the official languages of Canada are English and French, in order to find jobs and make a living in Canada, many Italians were forced to learn and begin speaking a language other than their native language. Italians were forced to learn the traditions and behaviours of Canadians, in order to connect and relate to the people in their neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods made up of Italian immigrants and their families, known as ‘Little Italies’ were a response to the difficulty many Italians had assimilating into Canadian culture. In “Global Geography of ‘Little Italy’: Italian Neighbourhoods in Comparative Perspective,” Donna R. Gabaccia explains that many Italians were subject to what Robert Harney calls “italophobia”. As Gabaccia argues, “earlier arrivals of European descent also sought to differentiate themselves from immigrant southern European ‘races’ because they were perceived as inferior to themselves and, thus, as a threat to their nations.” Therefore, because Italians were seen as inadequate or of a lower status, many Canadians did not want to associate with them, forcing Italians to migrate together and form their own communities. However, during the 1970s and 1980s Prime Minister Trudeau introduced policies and laws such as the The Cultural Contribution of the Other Ethnic Groups in 1970 and the Act for the Preservation and Enhancement of Multiculturalism in Canada in 1988 which reduced the alienation of Italian immigrants. While Italians did face discrimination and hardships upon their arrival through to the 1970s, laws and policies were enacted which eliminated these difficulties. This has allowed Italian immigrants to better integrate and assimilate into Canadian culture.
Unlike the Italian community, Indigenous peoples faced a violent process of assimilation, in which they were forced to assimilate into Canadian culture. An example of this violent process of assimilation was the Residential “School” system. Residential “schools” explicitly attempted to destroy Indigenous cultures and strip Indigenous peoples of their rights. Thus, where Italians were rewarded by the process of assimilation through better paying jobs and the opportunity to live in nicer neighbourhoods, Indigenous Peoples lost their legal rights under the Indian Act as well as the ability to practice their cultures. In their essay, “Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s-1960s,” Heidi Bohaker and Franca Iacovetta explain that the Canadian government viewed Indigenous communities “as marginal and foreign groups who had to be brought into the Canadian mainstream.” Mainstream Canadian culture was organized around the values of the “white middle-class,” which promoted “dominant family ideals, rigid gender roles, and pro-capitalist values.” The Canadian government expected Indigenous communities to assimilate and conform to Canadian culture. Indigenous communities were thus left out of many of the policies put in place in the 1970s and 1980s such as The Cultural Contribution of the Other Ethnic Groups. Hutcheon explains that the phrase “‘Other ethnic groups’ referred to all who were not aboriginal.” Thus, the mere title of the report suggests that immigrants have important cultural offerings whereas Indigenous communities do not.
The suppression of Indigenous culture and values was further emphasized in many of the experiences shared by two speakers during the Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation panel discussion. One speaker explained that it was often difficult for her Indigenous mother to speak of her history due to significant trauma. Similarly, a second speaker knows very little about her culture as the hardships endured in her mother’s life made it very difficult for her to speak of her culture. Comparatively, because the second speaker’s Italian father did not experience the same level of trauma in regard to the ability to practice his heritage culture, the speaker was not deprived of her Italian heritage and culture. Her disconnection from Indigenous culture due to her mother’s generational trauma and inability to speak of her hardships, highlights the passed-on trauma that many Indigenous people still face. It is important to recognize that this trauma is common across many Indigenous families because of the ongoing settler-colonial project and the harm it engenders. The latter speaker’s experience also emphasizes that though most Italian-Canadians similarly experienced hardships upon arriving to Canada, the level of generational trauma they experienced does not compare to that of Indigenous communities. While Italian-Canadians no longer experience discrimination on the basis on their ethnicity, Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to be subject to racist and discriminatory government policy.
As an Italian-Canadian, I understand the importance of appreciating and maintaining my Italian culture. Throughout my daily life I incorporate aspects of my Italian culture as well as my Canadian culture. Though Italian-Canadians did not experience the same violent, forced assimilation that many Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to experience, we should leverage our personal experiences to help us understand the ongoing hardships and marginalization that Indigenous communities face. Italian-Canadians have a responsibility to support Indigenous communities as they strive for equity. This responsibility entails the further education of many to understand the history of Indigenous peoples in order to better comprehend the struggles they have faced and the struggles they currently endure. Similarly, we must better understand the history of Canada and the harmful structures that are still in place, as it is impossible to truly uplift Indigenous communities without fully understanding their history, cultures, and values. By discrediting stereotypes and paying close attention to the language and terms that are used by non-Indigenous peoples, it is possible to contribute to a more equal and respectful society. Most importantly, as Dr. Robert Phillips emphasized during the panel discussion, it is vital that we remember that no culture or history is greater than the other.
By acknowledging the similarities and differences between Italian-Canadian and Indigenous communities experiences in Canada, it becomes clear that Indigenous cultures continue to be marginalized. Though we cannot undo the historical suffering Indigenous peoples have endured under the settler-colonial project of Canada, there are opportunities to support Indigenous peoples’ ongoing calls for justice and reconciliation. By further educating oneself on the difficulties faced by Indigenous communities and being mindful of one’s actions and language, it is possible to create a more equitable society.
Bohaker, Heidi, and Franca Iacovetta. "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, no. 3 (2009): 427-
Gabaccia, Donna R. “Global Geography of ‘Little Italy’: Italian Neighbourhoods in Comparative
Perspective.” Modern Italy: Journal of the Association for the Study of Modern Italy 11, no. 1 (2006): 9–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/13532940500489510.
Hutcheon, Linda. "Four Views on Ethnicity." PMLA 113, no. 1 (1998): 28-33.