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.