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The Origins of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto

The wellspring of an awakening of urban Indigenous culture in Toronto.

In the years following the Second World War, thousands of men and women migrated to Canada’s urban centres. Along with immigrants coming from around the world, many First Nations people from across Ontario and Canada made the trek, effectively becoming the first generation to integrate into major Canadian cities. Various factors, including economic opportunity, drove the migration. Moving to the city posed many risks, but to do so meant writing one’s own economic destiny, something that could simply not be done on a First Nation Reserve. This mobilization, though, was also part of a general feeling of resistance against assimilation and control still present on the reserves.

The story of Toronto’s urban Indigenous Peoples is one of the most fascinating examples of community-building by necessity. For those uprooted from their communities, many of them in rural areas, achieving success while dealing with adversity was not only challenging, but morally debilitating. But as the urban Indigenous community grew in size, several community leaders—most of them women—fought to preserve traditions and practices lost in migration.

Perhaps the most fitting response to this need for cultural preservation is the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Verna Patronella Johnston, one of the local figures whose activism became crucial to the development of the Centre, recognized the need for its specialized services. Johnston, who spent the beginning of her life on the Cape Croker Reserve (now called Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation) on the Bruce Peninsula, moved to Toronto to address the difficulties to urban migration. In I Am Nokomis, Too (1), a biography by R.M. Vanderburgh commemorating Johnston, her motives for moving to Toronto are clear: “I was only thinking of my relatives.” Johnston established a home for Indigenous Peoples on Danforth Ave, and just like at Cape Croker, her role as an elder helped youth from afar adapt to the city. She was affectionately referred to as “grandma”.

“I was very concerned for them. They had finished High School and wanted to go to Business College. So I decided to come with them just for a year. That’s all I intended. But then I became involved in the Indian community here in Toronto, and realized the bad image Indians have.”

Thousands of men and women from reserves in Ontario and beyond converged in Toronto’s downtown core, all bringing different sets of customs and traditions from their respective bands or nations. But for all the differences they brought to Toronto, all Indigenous groups had suffered under the same regime of forced assimilation and education. Through state-mandated residential schools, virtually all Indigenous groups endured an extended period of persecution and cultural erasure, one that also saw the removal of Indigenous children from their families.

Writer and anthropologist Heather Howard-Bobiwash, who penned a detail analysis of life as an Indigenous woman in Toronto in the post-war era, highlighted a 1930s-era pamphlet that shows just what life was like for Indigenous women in Toronto before the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Teeming with condescension and racism, the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs advised them to “pay your rent, be on time for work, and spend your money wisely.” And when it came to weekends, the pamphlet sternly advised that “consumption of alcoholic beverages has led to the ruin of many people,” and that one must “follow all the rules of personal hygiene, cut your hair, and refrain from questionable entertainment.”

In the first year alone, approximately 6,000 people visited the centre, and only two years later, over 15,000 people dropped in, prompting their eventual move to 16 Spadina.

The Native Canadian Centre’s origins go back to a home owned by the Jamieson’s, a family from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve. As a meeting place for the Toronto Native community, their house welcomed Indigenous peoples in the same fashion that Toronto clubhouses for Scottish or Dutch men welcomed their brethren, a common practice during the early 20th century. Partnering with the YMCA, they formed the North American Indian Club, a group that could embed itself within the growing urban landscape and be at the right place for Indigenous people moving into the city.

The club moved several times in the 1950s and 60s before ending up at 16 Spadina Road in 1975. Including members of the Anishinaabe,Cree, Mi’kmaq, Haudenosaunee and others, the Native Canadian Centre grew from a disparate social network of working women into a full-fledged institute offering workshops, support programs and more.

The NCCT emerged from the original founding of the North American Indian Club, and in 1963, they established their own flagship location on Beverly St. in downtown Toronto. The immediate results were nothing short of astounding. In the first year alone, approximately 6,000 people visited the centre, and only two years later, over 15,000 people dropped in, prompting their eventual move to 16 Spadina.

For Verna Johnston, establishing a community for Indigenous people in Toronto was nothing of imperative. Between her arrival to Toronto and 1965, she experienced first-hand the difficulties of adapting to city life without an identifiable support system. Which is why, in 1965, she opened a boarding house for Indigenous women. Since many of those who moved to Toronto also pursued education on top of a career, receiving proper housing—let alone a paycheck—proved difficult. Verna’s boarding house accommodated women enrolled in technical schools, but it impacted the urban Indigenous community far beyond its role as a place for food and shelter. Having those resources in place allowed women to emancipate themselves from the institution of marriage, as they could take bigger risks in pursuit of their career.

A Native Canadian man and child shaking hands, both dressed in traditional clothing
The 20th Anniversary of the Native Canadian Centre. (Image courtesy of The Toronto Star Archives).

Most importantly, however, Johnston arranged her boarding house with a structure more in tune with the daily routines of the conventional Indigenous community. Traditions certainly vary among different nations, but one that Johnston made central to the boarding house was “Nokomis”, a term that means “grandmother” in Ojibwe. The idea consists of using the boarding house community as a way to maintain youth-elder relationships among a sea of different cultures and belief systems. The generational rifts created by the residential school system and the urban migration threatened to outright destroy storytelling traditions. Encouraging these family bonds allowed Indigenous women to establish a robust support system.

The NCCT established a Ladies Auxiliary to provide specialized volunteer services to Indigenous Torontonians who may be lacking community, let alone family. Some of their activities, such as translation and employment services, served a clear utilitarian purpose. On the other hand, the Ladies Auxiliary made hospital and prison visits, held crafting workshops and even helped artisans sell their work to others in the community. Not only did these programs offer a sense of community for the women, they also offered a sense of purpose for those who may have previously struggled with culture shock in the urban environment.

In the book Aboriginal Peoples in Canadian Cities: Transformations and Continuities(2) Howard-Bobiwash explained why the centre is so important to Toronto’s Indigenous community. “I grew as a person in those years, and I don’t mean just running the house for Indian students. I came into contact with Indians from other parts of Ontario, and other provinces. I found out that there were a lot of Indians working to help their own people…That is Indians helping Indians—it’s not the same as white do-gooders! Indians who have lived in the city know what it’s all about, they are the best ones to help people. City Indians had really good ideas about how to help their people adjust to city life.”

Today, The NCCT continues to offer a variety of workshops and programs, from Indigenous language training to regalia-making, along with several other forms of programming geared towards improving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples, such as Indigenous Cultural Awareness Training and Dodem Kanonsha, an “Elder’s Cultural Facility” focused on improving relations between Toronto’s manifold cultures.

The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto is not the only institution of its kind in the city, but for the tens of thousands of immigrants who settle in Toronto each year and the Indigenous people who continue to arrive from all parts of Canada, it serves as a model for preserving tradition, however vulnerable it may be.


Explore Further

(1) I am Nokomis, too: the Biography of Verna Patronella Johnston

By Rosamond M. Vanderburgh
247 pages. General Publishing Company, 1977.

(2) Aboriginal Peoples in Canadian Cities:
Transformations and Continuities

Edited by Heather A. Howard & Craig Proulx
264 pages. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2011.

The Meeting Place: Aboriginal Life in Toronto
By Heather Howard-Bobiwas & Frances Sanderson
172 pages. Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, 1997.

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