• Nicole Mele

Indigenous-Italian Connections: Starting a Conversation, Reflection on the Webinar

Updated: Dec 8, 2021

By Nicole Mele


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


Insightful ideas, stories and possibilities for the future were shared during the Indigenous-Italian Connections: Starting a Conversation webinar held virtually in March of 2021. During this event, panelists who had different connections to Indigenous and Italian communities shared their experiences and wisdom on topics of social justice, allyship and awareness through education.


The panel members discussed similarities and differences between Indigenous and Italian-Canadian experiences. A common theme discussed by panel members who were both Indigenous and Italian-Canadian, was a complicated sense of belonging. Each panelist discussed feeling slightly disconnected from one half of their background. Most Indigenous-Italian panelists shared that they were not told an extensive amount about their Indigenous background by their parents or other family members. State-sanctioned assimilation policies have impacted the ways in which Indigenous parents and elders have been able to pass down traditional knowledge to their children and community members. According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, over 150,000 Indigenous children were placed in residential schools by force and there were forbidden and punished for speaking their traditional languages and expressing their cultural practices. As a result of being abused and ridiculed for practicing cultural traditions and simply living as one’s authentic self, it is no surprise that the ongoing effects of trauma trickle down into each generation. Potential consequences, among others, could be identified as the lack of traditional cultural knowledge being passed down to younger generations within Indigenous families. To place the conversations had by the panelists into a larger context, we can look to an article published by the CBC which documents the story of Maeengan Linklater, the child of a residential school survivor (Deerchild, 2015). In the article, Linklater explains how he now understands that his strained relationship with his mother stemmed from the trauma that she experienced growing up and how even though he never doubts how much his mother loves him, her lasting trauma nonetheless sets the stage for a challenging relationship (Deerchild, 2015). Linklater expresses how oftentimes the grandchildren and children of residential school survivors also suffer the consequences of the trauma that their older relatives experienced (Deerchild, 2015). While this article is specific to Linklaters’s experience, it does exemplify the impact of the intergenerational trauma experienced by many Indigenous peoples as a result of ongoing processes of settler-colonialism.


With respect to the panelists, in response to their complicated understanding and limited access to aspects of their Indigenous heritage, some panel members expressed that this feeling of not knowing inspired them to gain knowledge through social justice initiatives or involvement within the community. Ongoing processes of settler-colonialism, and the lasting impact of intergenerational trauma pose as a reminder that conversations about Reconciliation and meaningful systemic change must also be ongoing.


An interesting parallel drawn during the webinar was the connection between the importance of Elders in both the Indigenous and Italian communities. In Indigenous communities, Elders seem to represent a wealth of wisdom and knowledge through their lived experiences. In the Italian culture, intergenerational relationships play a very important role in carrying on traditions and shaping the importance of family support. In both of these communities, Elders carry the important role of sharing their own lived experiences that can help younger generations understand their culture. These experiences allow members of a community to compare and contrast the experiences of their elderly family members with their own in the present day. Intergenerational interactions within families have the potential to highlight the valuable knowledges each generation has to offer.


Dr. Robert Phillips, a speaker in the webinar, mentioned a brief story about how he became friends with a man who was a new Italian immigrant to Canada. He touched on how both himself and his friend were discriminated against. However, he argued that the discrimination against Italian–Canadians is not equal to the discriminations Indigenous peoples face. Subsequently, Dr. Phillips highlighted that though Italian-Canadians faced discrimination, they were then able to gain a place of societal privilege as the years progressed. Indigenous communities were not afforded these same privileges or opportunities. A paper by Bohaker and Iacovetta (2009) captured this idea through a discussion of citizenship campaigns in Canada. The authors discuss how during the post WWII era, both new immigrants and Indigenous peoples were expected to adapt to Anglo-Saxon family norms, gender roles and pro-capitalist values. However, programs aimed at Indigenous people were noticeably less respectful of their traditions and autonomy within Canada. This example from the literature echoes the message shared through Dr. Robert Phillip’s own lived experience.


Events such as Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation provide such valuable insight into the similarities and differences that can be explored between different cultural and national communities. Sometimes it may seem easier to treat history as simply events of the past that do not hold relevance in today’s society. However, neglecting the contemporary impact of historical events prevents us from learning from the past. Instead of dismissing the realities of the past, conversations about it must be had in order to make meaningful and more equitable decisions for the future. Using knowledge that has already been gained through historical experiences in addition to what has been learned in the present can contribute to taking actions to prevent injustices from continuing to occur.


It goes without saying that there are differences between various groups of people and cultures, but then again there are differences between every person regardless of cultural background. Cultural and historical differences should be leveraged to learn from different perspectives. For example, during the webinar, each panelist shared their diverse perspectives on how the Italian-Canadian community could take steps to build better relationships with Indigenous communities. A common theme which emerged from the discussion was the need for non-Indigenous people to take the initiative to educate themselves on Indigenous histories and promote education for others. Examples of the next steps suggested by the panelists included: referring to Indigenous nations by name, acknowledging the racism and biases that are present within media, and continuing to engage in conversations about Indigenous justice.


In sum, this webinar highlighted some differences in the lived experiences of individuals from different cultural backgrounds and upbringings, which provided rich insight and diverse and valuable viewpoints. As important as it is to appreciate these differences, it is also important to acknowledge that there are always similarities that exist between one another, such as the parallels between Indigenous and Italian family dynamics and intergenerational relationships. Though this is just one similarity, there are countless others which remind us of the shared experience of being human and our innate desire for respect and dignity. No one person or group of people is innately better or worse than anyone else. Oppression and discrimination are socially constructed and as such, do not exist naturally. Since injustice has been socially created, we must recognize that we have a responsibility to break cycles of systemic oppression. It is our responsibility to stand in solidarity with those that have suffered the consequences of an unjust system from which Italian-Canadians have benefitted. In doing so we must work to provide support that is necessary to foster meaningful changes and progress.


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. Canadian Historical Review, 90(3), 427–462. https://doi.org/10.3138/chr.90.3.427


Deerchild, R. (2015, June 13). Intergenerational impacts of residential schools, 1st steps of Reconciliation | CBC News. CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/intergenerational-impacts-of-residential-schools-1st-steps-of-reconciliation-1.3109827.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. (2021). Residential Schools- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). (n.d.). http://www.trc.ca/about-us.html.