John Ciaccia

John Ciaccia swayed Quebec Premier Bourassa to open negotiations during the Oka Crisis instead of sending in the army right away

by Julia Mastroianni (IT)

The passing of provincial cabinet minister John Ciaccia on August 7 came as sad news for many Montrealers, who will remember him as a fierce Indigenous affairs negotiator driven by his experiences as an Italian-Canadian in Quebec.

Ciaccia moved to Canada from Jelsi, Italy when he was four. He became involved in politics in 1971 after 12 years of practicing law. Ciaccia, who dealt with discrimination as an Italian growing up in Quebec, was able to use his experiences to inform his negotiations later on in his political career. He progressed from assistant deputy minister of what was then called Indian Affairs and Northern Development under Jean Chrétien, to Liberal member of the National Assembly (MNA) in Quebec, eventually becoming cabinet minister.

Rita De Santis, former Quebec cabinet minister and Ciaccia’s friend, remembers him as a “man of integrity” but stubborn. When he was first elected MNA, a bill was up for debate about making French the official language of Quebec – Bill 22. “He voted against his party, which was the government at the time, so he was thrown out of caucus,” De Santis explains. He continued to do so throughout his career, she adds, “never giving up his principles” for the will of his party.

Ciaccia was recruited by former Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa to be the main negotiator in the James Bay Agreement and Oka Crisis because of his previous experience with Indigenous communities. “He felt that the Indigenous community was put in a very difficult position, and that the lands in question should simply have been handed over,” De Santis says.

She recalls Ciaccia’s famous move to use his personal dock in Dorval to transport food and other essentials by ferry to the Kahnawake reserve because police had blocked the provincial highway connected to it. “He felt the situation [Oka Crisis] could have been avoided and should have been avoided,” De Santis says. She believes his empathy for the Indigenous communities he worked with was due in part to the discrimination he faced as a child. “His name, his baptismal name, is Giambattista Nicola. But because he was a young boy during the Second World War in Quebec, the English community there at the time was very aggressive toward people of Italian origin because we were at war.”

She says Ciaccia changed his name to John in order to avoid discrimination and became involved in other communities. “He became very much identified with the English-speaking community. Until the ’70s, he was attached to the Jewish community as a lawyer and he didn’t have very much knowledge of the Italian community,” she says.

It wasn’t until 1979, during the first referendum, that Ciaccia started to reconnect with his own roots, De Santis says. “That’s when he started to rediscover that part of who he was which had somehow been eradicated because of the circumstances of life.”

As a friend and father, she remembers Ciaccia as being someone you could always count on. She shares that one of his greatest regrets about his involvement in politics was how much time it took away from his private life. “Politics sucks you up. You have very little time for the things that are important, like your family.”