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Statement on the Columbus Centre

Statement issued on Sept. 30, 2022

As a project, Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections is dedicated to building bridges between Indigenous Nations and Italian-Canadian communities; this decision is counter to our mission, goals, and values and it perpetuates violence against Indigenous Nations, particularly those on whose lands the Centre stands. We have spent the last weeks contemplating this decision and our response to it. We offer our response to you below in the spirit of accountability, community, collaboration, education, and hope. In it, you will also find quotations from Columbus regarding Indigenous peoples and resources by Indigenous authors and thinkers for your own further reading. Thank you, Dr. Angela Nardozi & Dr. Paolo Frascà

Co-Directors of Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections

This piece is written by the authors listed above and does not necessarily reflect the official position of any academic entities with which the Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections project is affiliated. Our statement Christopher Columbus committed crimes against Indigenous peoples. These crimes include enslavement, land theft, and forced spiritual conversion. Columbus’ arrival in the so-called Americas and his treatment of Indigenous peoples directly led to centuries of genocide, cultural erasure, dehumanization, and resource and land dispossession. We have engaged in the Columbus Centre's formal consultation process and have done our own consultations, with Indigenous and Italian-Canadian partners, on the Centre’s decision to keep the name of this destructive figure. When we (Paolo and Angela) participated in the Columbus Centre name-change consultation process, we made it very clear that we felt the consultation should never have occurred, since it is indisputable that Columbus represents genocide and colonialism. For us, this is not a matter of popular opinion but one of historical factuality. Through our own consultations, we found that many are categorically opposed to the Centre’s decision to keep its name. Others see how it may be important to keep the name as a reminder of violent histories that we cannot change but from which we can learn in order to take meaningful action. Some are worried that directing our energy to this issue will lead to burnout and distract us from more important matters. We are grateful to those who are connected to our project for sharing these thoughts and allowing us to see this issue from many perspectives. In our own consultations, it was clear that individuals want to see action towards the sharing of real truths and towards Reconciliation. The Consultation Report While many who were consulted expressed a wish to keep the name, a significant portion of respondents did advocate for a name change. We would like to highlight the following points from the Consultation Report issued by the Columbus Centre:

  • The Report states that “when testing the suitability of various historical figures for an Italian Canadian Centre or facility, Columbus was the least cited as suitable” (p. 8).

  • A majority of respondents who are Italian-Canadians under 35 and those who are Black and Indigenous “associate the name with colonialism and repression” (p. 10).

  • The Report states that “Italian Canadians [...] were among the highest in terms of responses to reasons to change the name and in particular [to provide] a statement about the name being associated with colonialism.” (p. 12)

  • Black and Indigenous respondents are “consistently the strongest in responding to reasons for changing the name and lowest in reasons for keeping the name.” (p. 12)

Based on these findings, we were surprised that the decision to keep the name was made. To obtain a full copy of the report please contact Chevanne Simpson at csimpson@villacharities.com The Celebration of Colonial Figures Many Italian-American and Italian-Canadian communities have celebrated Columbus in the past in order to gain acceptance on this land, alongside other figures such as Giovanni Caboto, the Tonti brothers, Giovanni da Verrazzano, and Amerigo Vespucci. We deeply understand the desire for belonging after the trauma of immigration, war, poverty, and often discrimination within Italy. However, given the place of Italian-Canadians in the current Canadian milieu, it is time for our community to reckon with the legacy of Columbus’ violent actions and the stain this figure brings to our shared histories. One of the most well known historians of Italian-Canadian migration, Robert Perin, reminds us that “these navigators, soldiers, and administrators became larger-than-life cardboard cut-outs detached from their historical environment” (Perin, 97). Figures like Colombo and Caboto have become manufactured national myths “that are exclusive and ethnocentric rather than inclusive and pluralistic” (Perin, 99). By choosing to keep its name, the Centre is not only celebrating a harmful, genocidal figure but also doing a disservice to migration history. Columbus was not a migrant seeking a better life. Columbus was not an Italian national and did not travel to the so-called Americas on behalf of any pre-unitary state of the Italian peninsula. He was a navigator who lost his way while attempting to reach the shores of India. The Way Forward The results from the report are good indicators that an important ethical shift is taking place in our community and provide insight on the way our community and its institutions are perceived from the outside. Many Italian-Canadians work tirelessly to educate themselves and others on the role that Italians and the Italian State have played in violent colonial histories. Many in our community engage in powerful actions in solidarity with the groups that continue to suffer the consequences of these histories. While we see this decision by the Centre as harmful for the reasons listed, we also view it as a stark reminder of the work that has yet to be done by our community to meaningfully honour the First People of this land, to return to them what has been violently taken, and to imagine a future where the original Treaties are honoured and all communities are seen as equal. Through our project, we have learned that many in the Italian-Canadian community, across generations, really care about righting the wrongs of colonial violence and learning more about the role that Italian-Canadians play in the process of Truth and Reconciliation. Many Italian-Canadians have been engaged in this work for decades; we deeply honour their work and we are thankful to them for paving the way for us and others. Many institutions, including Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), are choosing to move on from namesakes that embody complex histories that include violence and white supremacy. Along with its decision to keep its original name, the Centre is planning on producing and displaying a land acknowledgement plaque and creating a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion policy. We see this, at this time, as lacking in meaning because it does not address the main issue that had been brought to the attention of the Centre: its name. How can we acknowledge Indigenous land and be inclusive while in a space that honours a colonial and genocidal figure? We have collaborated with the Columbus Centre on educational efforts related to Indigenous-Italian-Canadian connections and we are grateful for the very welcoming spirit of the Centre’s community and leadership. We know, through our work together, that the Centre tries to foster a welcoming environment and provide leadership and a cultural space for our communities. This is why this decision, at this moment in time, by the leaders of this important institution, is so disheartening. Ultimately, the Columbus Centre’s decision to maintain its name is an important moment in Italian-Canadian history because it has demonstrated that those of us who feel passionate about fostering a more just relationship with Indigenous peoples still have much work to do to educate ourselves and one another. A Final Note Today is the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation / Orange Shirt Day. Today and every day, it is our community’s duty to walk alongside Indigenous peoples, and under their leadership, on the path of Truth and Reconciliation. Truth looks like acknowledging that Columbus is a harmful historical figure not worthy of celebration and not representative of the Italian-Canadian experience; Reconciliation happens when communities work together and listen to one another to interrupt harmful patterns, such as the celebration of Columbus by our institutions. There is much work to be done and we are ready. Il nostro lavoro insieme continua. Source Perin, Robert. “Caboto as a Contested Ethnic Icon.” Cabot and His World. Symposium June 1997: Papers and Presentations a cura di Iona Bulgin. St. John’s, Canada: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999), pp. 87-99.

Excerpts from the writings of Cristopher Columbus

“But our Redeemer has given victory to our most illustrious King and Queen, and to their kingdoms rendered famous by this glorious event, at which all Christendom should rejoice, celebrating it with great festivities and solemn Thanksgivings to the Holy Trinity, with fervent prayers for the high distinction that will accrue to them from turning so many peoples to our holy faith; and also from the temporal benefits that not only Spain but all Christian nations will obtain.” (Christopher Columbus, Letter to to Saint Luis de Santángel announcing his “discovery”, 1493, Source: US History, Historic Documents)

“I have taken possession of all these islands, for their Highnesses, and all may be more extensive than I know, or can say, and I hold them for their Highnesses, who can command them as absolutely as the kingdoms of Castile. In Hispaniola, in the most convenient place, most accessible for the gold mines and all commerce with the mainland on this side or with that of the great Khan, on the other, with which there would be great trade and profit, I have taken possession of a large town, which I have named the City of Navidad.”

“Directly I reached the Indies in the first isle I discovered, I took by force some of the natives, that from them we might gain some information of what there was in these parts; and so it was that we immediately understood each other, either by words or signs. They are still with me and still believe that I come from heaven.” (Navigation Log, Christopher Columbus, 1492, Source: Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook)

“Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. [...] It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion.” (Navigation Log, Christopher Columbus, 1492, Source: Fordham University’s Medieval Sourcebook)

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