Updated: Dec 8, 2021
By Victoria Terech
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.
Indigenous experiences are unique and differ greatly from those of Italian-Canadians. As discussed by Heidi Bohaker and Franca Iacovetta in “Making Aboriginal People ‘Immigrants Too’: A Comparison of Citizenship Programs for Newcomers and Indigenous Peoples in Postwar Canada, 1940s–1960s,” Indigenous peoples were wrongly labelled as “immigrants” and were expected to assimilate into “Canadian culture”. During this time, the Canadian government amalgamated the citizenship branch and Indian Affairs branch into a new department of Citizenship and Immigration (Bohaker & Iacovetta, 2009). According to government officials, this was done to create a “standardized” Canadian cultural society (ibid). While Italian-Canadian immigrants were also expected to assimilate, the experience was vastly different. Postwar Canadian citizenship policies were more permissive of cultural differences among immigrants than amongst Indigenous peoples. Italian-Canadians faced inequity but also were able to maintain their culture and heritage. Today, many Canadians celebrate Italian-Canadian culture. This can be seen through programming and events hosted within Italian enclaves, such as the Taste of Little Italy on Toronto’s College Street. Comparatively, Indigenous communities do not enjoy the same systemic advantages as Italian-Canadians and Indigenous cultures have never been respected as the original cultures of this place. For example, previous government policies such as Residential “Schools” resulted in poorer current overall health outcomes of Indigenous peoples in Canada compared to other Canadians.
In February 2021, I attended a panel discussion titled Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation hosted by the Frank Iacobucci Centre for Italian Canadian Studies. This event explored connections and paths forward between Indigenous and Italian-Canadian communities. One theme that resonated for me was the connection to family and knowing our roots to better understand who we are as individuals and as a migrant/settler community.
Julia Giraudi, a Filipinx-Italian Settler and advocate, reflected on her Italian heritage and how important it was to connect with her nonno to understand herself and her identity. Also on the panel was Agnese Escalona, an Indigenous woman who is a status citizen of the Garden River Ojibway Nation and her brother Matthias Nunno. Escalona and Nunno highlighted the importance of personal identity through understanding Indigenous histories. As Nunno commented, it is important that non-Indigenous people educate themselves on Indigenous histories. This will enable non-Indigenous people to cultivate greater respect for Indigenous peoples and land.
Indigenous and Italian-Canadian communities have encountered varying degrees of marginalization and discrimination. Italian-Canadians were stereotyped and “othered” but their race and place of origin made being socially accepted much easier. As mostly white settlers, the social positioning of Italian-Canadians in racial and ethnic hierarchies was higher than Black and Indigenous folks and People of Colour. This gave Italian-Canadians more privilege over other non-white ethnicities. As a result, the desire on behalf of the Canadian government to acculturate Italian-Canadians was minimized compared to other non-white groups such as Indigenous peoples.
During the event, many of the panelists highlighted the importance of full self-acceptance despite facing external racism and stereotypes. In particular, Dr. Robert Phillips, a Mi’kmaq scholar, Elder and artist spoke of several labels placed on Indigenous peoples over time and the fact that even though these labels change, people still carry stereotypical and oppressive beliefs about Indigenous peoples. He and Escalona went on to say that in the face of this prejudice, Indigenous peoples must stay true to themselves and not change to fit an ideal. Escalona touched upon the fact that she is white-passing, and it was difficult for her to fully embrace her Indigenous-Italian roots because oftentimes she is only seen as white, and her indigeneity is questioned.
Overall, I believe having discussions about Indigenous connections is important in order to grow, even if sometimes uncomfortable. Moreover, for those who have positions of privilege, this is a way to learn to use our voices to support, uplift and work towards reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. For Italian-Canadians specifically, this can look like listening to Indigenous peoples’ perspectives, actively researching colonial histories and the ways it has produced inequity and addressing the stereotypes we have internalized about Indigenous communities. Another tangible action item includes reading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action and reaching out to our local Members of Parliament to take steps to enact them. As settlers, it is important to work together to demand Indigenous-led responses to colonial injustices that will bring about positive changes for future generations of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
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.