Caterina Petrolo’s Mission to Advocate for Indigenous Peoples Across Canada

3 Mins read

Caterina Petrolo of Toronto, Canada isn’t one to stand around and watch injustices continue; the paralegal and prosecutor instead looks for every avenue to right a wrong. She credits her persistent personality and her desire for social justice as the driving forces behind her most recent venture, which is to provide a framework for advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights in her native Canada.

Petrolo has recently enrolled in an Indigenous Studies course at the University of Alberta, in an effort to learn about the histories, cultures, and contemporary issues of Indigenous peoples. After growing up and attending school in Toronto, Petrolo realized that at no point did her education include any curriculum on Indigenous cultures or existences. It was only when she met her common-law partner in 2003 that she discovered the difficulties that Aboriginals face on a daily basis.

In the case of Petrolo’s partner, obtaining his official Aboriginal status from the Canadian government took 28 years, countless forms of documentation, and Petrolo’s personal commitment to ensuring he was no longer given the runaround. As someone who had never experienced such red tape before, Petrolo was aghast at how her partner was treated, and the hoops he was asked to jump through again and again. Now she’s on a mission to change the process for good.

28 Years of Running in Circles

Born in 1972 to Aboriginal parents, Petrolo’s partner was given up for adoption as a newborn baby. He was adopted into a loving and nurturing white family on the east coast of Canada. His adoptive family at no point hid his adoption or aboriginal status from him; he also looked different from his peers and was bullied as a result.

At the age of 19, he was volunteering with the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and being mentored by a police officer. That officer encouraged him to apply for his aboriginal status, which he did. He originally filed his initial application in 1992, submitting it to the Federal Government seeking approval and his right to his status. Because he was given up for adoption, the Canadian government stacked endless barriers for him.

As Petrolo explains further, “He was turned away and instructed to deal with the ‘Indian Northern Affairs – adoption unit.’ This unit made it impossible for him to get acknowledgment that he was in fact Indigenous. They asked for numerous repetitive forms and continued with frivolous unethical requests. He was denied over and over as the years went on.”

By 2009, Petrolo had had enough. After watching her partner struggle with the process for years, she stepped in, certain that she could finally help him achieve his Indigenous status. In her own words, she was “blindsided” by how “ridiculous” their processes and operations were, continuously hitting a dead end. No matter how many statutory declarations she submitted, no matter how many leads, requests, and requirements she followed, she was turned away on his behalf.

“In October 2020 I re-attempted this one last time,” Petrolo recalls. “This time around I was much more aggressive with my approach. I made it very clear that I was not going to accept their past behaviors, and practices, nor their frivolous unethical document requests. The new members of the adoption unit provided an undertaking that they would revisit the file and only after reviewing the large voluminous file would they request anything from us. Lo and behold Council was provided all necessary summaries and ultimately granted his certificate of Status.”

Missed Opportunities

Petrolo’s partner eventually received his Indigenous status due largely in part to her involvement in his case. But Petrolo wonders how many other adopted aboriginal individuals are struggling with and giving up on their own certificates of status.

“What bothered me the most was the fact that he was denied his right to take part in his Indigenous Community, and cultures and missed out on ample opportunities,” she says. “Through the years together, I first hand observed and felt the mistreatment of Indigenous people. I was exposed to seeing how they live on reservations and felt the need to be part of helping them move forward. It is my opinion that most of the injustices, challenges, and failures (whether health, clean water, or housing) were and are caused by the Canadian Government.”

What’s Next for Caterina Petrolo?

With an eye towards permanent change, Petrolo is determined to be a voice and an advocate for Indigenous peoples across Canada – and perhaps one day, the world. Her first step is to learn more about their histories and cultures, and then their current struggles in modern society. Only then can she help them work towards a more fair, just, and comfortable future. 

What started as a personal commitment to helping her partner has become a potential career path, guiding Petrolo to use her legal education to right a wrong she is so passionate about. 

A woman on a mission, determined not to take no for an answer, Canada’s Indigenous people are lucky to have Caterina Petrolo fighting beside them in their quest for justice and a better future. 


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