Monthly Archives: November 2013

Verna Patronella Johnston

From 1966 to 1972 this heritage home on Blythwood Road was    occupied by Verna Patronella Johnston, who used it to provide housing for several Native youth who moved to Toronto to pursue post-secondary studies.

From 1966 to 1972 this heritage home on Blythwood Road was occupied by Verna Patronella Johnston, who used it to provide housing for several Native youth who moved to Toronto to pursue post-secondary studies. Photo Credit: Bob Krawczyk

 About Verna Patronella Johnston

Verna Patronella Johnston (1909-1996) was an Ojibway author, mother, grandmother, and mentor, known for her work in helping Native youth adapt to urban life. She exhibited a strong presence in both her community of Cape Croker and the city of Toronto.

 When one of Verna’s granddaughters expressed interest in taking a secretarial course, Verna insisted she attend Shaw’s Business College in Toronto. The prospective student was interested in moving but was intimidated by the city, and being away from home. Verna decided to relocate to Toronto with two of her granddaughters and provided a comfortable and safe home for them within a small third floor apartment. The girls enrolled in business courses and had the support necessary to face new experiences with more ease. They knew of other Native students in boarding homes, who struggled with social acceptance by their boarding families, and so, felt disconnected within the city. But Verna’s granddaughters’ experiences were not free from difficulties. Verna insisted that the girls invite non-Native students to the house, as she believed that part of living in the city was to make positive relations. However, this effort was thwarted as the girls faced several rejected invitations.

Eventually, three more of Verna’s granddaughters came to Toronto to attend school. The apartment wasn’t big enough so in 1966 Verna rented a large house in North Toronto, in a nice residential area close to public transportation. The home featured a big yard, cherry tree, raspberry bushes, and garden space.  This was not the first time Verna had opened her home and heart to multiple youth. Before moving to Toronto with her granddaughters, she worked as a foster mother for many years. This new home on Blythwood Road was the first boarding house for Native students run by a Native person and Verna ran it for several years. By 1972, the boarding house moved to a new location on McGill Street, before it closed in 1973. During this period of her life in Toronto, Verna wrote and published a book, Tales of Nokomis, which features stories of teachings by Nokomis (Ojibway word, meaning  grandmother) that were passed down orally to her in her own youth.

After the boarding home closed, Verna moved back to her home in Cape Croker where she was approached by the community priest Father Lebel, who was concerned about the placement of children from the reserve into white homes by the Chidren’s Aid Society.  Verna and Father Lebel worked together to convert the old missionary house into a foster home that would be run by Verna. Acceptance by Children’s Aid officials was a challenge but a success, and CAS agreed to pay Verna to run the foster home. Tragically, the home was engulfed and destroyed by fire just a day before the children’s arrival, and Verna lost everything. However, she was resilient and soon after Verna managed to gain possession of a cottage and barn on a farm property. Within four months she renovated the cottage into a five bedroom home.  Once again, Verna created a gathering place for youth, her grandchildren, foster children, and friends.

Unfortunately Verna’s health declined, as she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease a few years prior, and her doctor advised her to slow down. She made the painful decision to stop fostering, and once again moved to Toronto.

 Once back in Toronto Verna was enraged to discover that white foster homes were paid double the amount she was given. Verna publicly protested against CAS; she wrote to newspapers, gave radio interviews, and made speeches in which she accused CAS of discrimination. Her work was effectual; it was reported soon after that foster parents on the reserve were now paid equally.

Verna moved back to Cape Croker for retirement, but found this decision disappointing. She noticed the reserve had changed for the worse and had lost its sense of community. Even worse, she felt held back by friends and family who insisted she must relax and enjoy retirement. She felt restricted of the ability to speak her mind and be involved in the community.  Restless, she went to Toronto once again to be respected and independent. She found her place as a housekeeper at Anduhyaun House, a hostel for women, and became a mentor for the residents.

 In 1976, Verna Patronella Johnston was awarded the title of Indian Woman of the Year by the Native Women’s Association. In 1976, her inspirational life story was written and presented in I am Nokomis, Too, by R.M. Vanderburgh. 


Read an Interview with Verna Johnston, April 5th, 1982.



Drawing of Riel by artist Irma Council for the Indian Hall of Fame exhibition.

Drawing of Riel by artist Irma Council for the Indian Hall of Fame exhibition.

Louis Riel was Métis, born in St. Boniface in the Red River Settlement area, now Winnipeg in 1844. He went to school in the area and later attended Sepulcian College in Montreal. Between 1868-1869 the transfer of lands from the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada sparked an uproar with the Metis people who lived in this territory. Riel led the movement to stop the surveyors in the territory, and form a Metis political military party. They took control of Fort Garry and Riel became the president of their provisional government.

Riel retained a position in the Canadian government several times until he was thrown out of the House of Commons and exiled from Canada for five years in 1874. With the coming of westward expansion, Riel returned to Canada and again established a provisional government along with the support of other First Nations groups. In 1885 a second rebellion began, but Riel was overthrown by the Canadian Government. Riel was then convicted of treason, and in 1885, was executed in Regina.

Louis Riel Day in Toronto 2013

Every year, Métis from across the Homeland, honour the anniversary of the unjust execution of Louis Riel by holding Louis Riel Day events. Although Louis Riel Day commemorates one of the great tragedies of Canadian history, it is also a day to celebrate Métis culture and the continuing progress the Métis people are making in fulfilling Louis Riel’s dream of the Métis taking their rightful place within Confederation.

Provincial Louis Riel Day ceremonies will be held at Queen’s Park in Toronto on November 15, 2013 at 11:00am

This year’s provincial Louis Riel Day events are especially poignant because they will also recognize the landmark tenth anniversary of the historic R. v. Powley decision. As has happened for the 12 previous years, this Louis Riel Day the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) and the Law Society of Upper Canada are partnering on an event to highlight key developments in Métis law, research and self-government. In honour of R. v. Powley, this year’s event features a panel of distinguished lawyers and MNO President Gary Lipinski who will discuss the significance of the Powley case; past, present and future

Agenda for MNO/Law Society Event

The MNO Toronto-York Métis Council is also holding at Métis Flag Raising at Toronto City Hall.

Anuual Métis Flag Raising Agenda

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