The Italian and Indigenous Mirror
Updated: Jan 14
By Dr. Bob Philips
Dr. Bob Phillips (Great Bear) is a non-Status Urban Mi’kmaq. Although a traditional Pipe Carrier, Bob is also very contemporary and holds a PhD in Indigenous Studies from Trent University. He also holds an MA in Fine Art History from York University as well as an Honours BA from the University of Toronto. Bob Phillips also spent ten years as host of the Aboriginal Voices Radio Arts Review show discussing art, culture, and contemporary issues with community members from across Canada and the Far North.
In terms of involvement with this project, Dr. Phillips was also an invited speaker at the event Indigenous-Italian-Canadian Connections: Starting a Conversation, which took place on February 24th, 2021. He has very generously given feedback and guidance on the development of this project.
I grew up in the West End of Toronto. When I turned sixteen, my father got me a summer job as a helper with a steam boiler repair company. There were three crews. Two of the crews had mainstream Canadian boilermakers. The third crew, that I was assigned to, was headed by an Italian man. In those days, he was considered a whop that people saw as a primitive, inferior creature. However, the man I worked for was actually a master blacksmith in Italy before the Second World War. In fact, his family had run a blacksmith shop for decades.
The helpers on the two Canadian crews basically just carried tools in and out of the truck. My boss, however, saw and treated me as an equal. He considered me an apprentice and taught me to do anything I was physically capable of. The result was that I acquired such a high degree of respect for the Italian community that I ultimately studied Italian enough that I became able to speak it. That was in spite of the fact that the blacksmith never uttered a word in Italian at work. He spoke English fluently, but with a heavy accent.
There was denial of any Native heritage in my family as I was growing up in spite of the fact that I was constantly called an Indian even as a little boy. As a young lad, I did not understand why I was frequently treated as a primitive, inferior creature. Later, as a young adult, however, I became friends with a great many Native people who treated me as an equal, and I began to sink into the culture while accepting that I am a North American Indian.
Today, I am frequently amazed by the similarities between Indigenous and Italian Canadians.
It is likely that the denial of Indigenous heritage in my family was for protection against mainstream racism toward Native people. Surprisingly, I have met many people of Italian heritage who grew up hiding or denying it for the same reason.
Many Native families underwent name changes to hide their Native background. Once again, I am constantly amazed at the number of people with Italian heritage whose families changed their names to avoid mainstream contempt.
An astonishingly high number of Indigenous Canadians do not speak their original languages. Their parents would not let them speak anything but English. Here too, I find a very strong similarity between Indigenous people and Italians. Many of their parents would not allow them to speak Italian to prevent them from being looked down on.
Very often, an Indigenous individual working in a mainstream company would be kept at the lower levels and not promoted in spite of skill and ability. That practice is seldom consciously or purposefully racist. It is usually simply brought about by a false understanding of Native people that automatically attaches negative characteristics to the individual. People have often picked up that negative understanding from things like television shows or films. The result is pressure on Indigenous individuals to create their own companies. Today in Canada there are over fifty thousand Aboriginal businesses.
This is another area where the Canadian Italian community has evolved in a manner similar to Aboriginal people. While Italians were being called whops, many were starting their own businesses. The construction industry is a very good example. The result is that today Italian people are seen as part of the mainstream culture. We just have to look at the wide stream acceptance of pizza as an example. Unfortunately, Native people and cultures are still seen as primitive and backward by many mainstream people.
The attitudes that I picked up from my parents have been with me for my entire life. Seeing everyone else as equal and treating them as such is one of the most important. The Italian blacksmith saw and treated me as an equal. Not surprisingly, when talking to Italian Canadians today, I am always thankful that I am being treated as an equal, and I have the comforting feeling that I am looking in a mirror.