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The American Indian Quarterly 27.3 (2003) 566-582

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Women's Class Strategies as Activism in Native Community Building in Toronto, 1950-1975

Another important decision was to come to Toronto and live with my grand-daughters. 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 . . . and so I felt I just couldn't leave . . . It never occurred to me that I would run a boarding house for other students. I was only thinking of my relatives.
Verna Patronella Johnston, quoted in I Am Nokomis, Too, 173-74

This was the response Verna Patronella Johnston (Anishinaabekwe, 1910-1995) gave anthropologist Rosamund Vanderburgh who asked why she came to Toronto in the 1960s from her home on the Cape Croker Reserve located about one hundred miles northwest of the city. Vanderburgh documented Johnston's life in the book, I Am Nokomis, Too, published in 1977.1 Her words, "I was only thinking of my relatives," embodies a common transition for Native women in rural-urban migration, from their roles as providers of shelter, food, and cultural knowledge transmission to kin, to new roles as activists and strategists for building community for Native people in the city.

Like Johnston's granddaughters, between the end of World War II and the early 1970s, many Native women in Ontario came to Toronto in the hopes of accessing higher education, jobs, and freedom denied them on reserves under the oppression of federal government tutelage. However, [End Page 566] much of the literature on Native rural-urban migration in Canada concentrates on an association between urbanization and social problems, or on Native peoples' "failure" to assimilate into urban society.2 Conversely, I contend that attention to women's experiences in the history of Toronto Native community building illustrates diversity and complexity in the socioeconomic life of Native urban migrants. For some, their personal journeys to Toronto positioned them as members of an emergent Native "middle class," itself characterized by the particularities of Native historical and cultural experiences, which I will discuss in the first section of this article.

In particular, many Native women in this position did not equate their relative economic success with assimilation. Rather, they utilized their class mobility to support the structural development of Native community organizations and promote positive pride in Native cultural identity in the city. In the second section, I sketch some of the intersections between Native women's lives and the development of community for thousands of Native people in Toronto between 1950 and 1975. I describe the involvement of Native women in the North American Indian Club (1950-1978), from which emerged the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto (founded 1962), the city's oldest Native community center, and the women's participation in the Native Centre's Ladies' Auxiliary. Their experiences also highlight the specificity of emerging Native "middle-class" identity in Toronto. This is further explored in the third part of this article, examining the engagement of Native women in socioeconomic class mobility, Native image-making, and networking with women members of the Toronto white elite. Their work here served as a means to generate positive forms of Native identity grounded in notions of cultural pride and authenticity, while also securing resources to empower Native community self-determination.

"So, You Are Coming To Toronto"

Work In the City and the Emergence of the Urban Native "Middle-Class"

"So, you are coming to Toronto," was the title of a pamphlet issued by the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs for Native people who, by the late 1930s, had begun migrating in large numbers to the city. The undated pamphlet (estimated by the Toronto Native Community History Project [End Page 567] to have been issued around the end of the World War II) featured on the...


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