“It’s not your organisation, it’s the people’s organisation. You’re only there as a cog, an important cog maybe, but you’re there to help. Always treat people with respect, honesty. Be willing to share your knowledge and whatever expertise you may have. And make friends.” (Gus Ashawasega, Elder and founding Board Member)
Native Child and Family Services of Toronto (NCFST) grew out of concern about how child welfare systems were treating Aboriginal families and the large number of Aboriginal children adopted into non-Aboriginal families. Offering extensive and wide-ranging programs to Aboriginal families in Toronto, NCFST very strongly and successfully advocated for an alternative: a service focused on preventing apprehension by protecting families, and a service grounded in Indigenous values and self-determination. The mission of NCFST is to work towards “a life of quality, wellbeing, caring and healing for our children and families in the Toronto Native Community.”
Don’t just listen to what government bureaucrats say: watch what they do. Assess the reality of the situation based on evidence, not hope. (Kenn Richard, Executive Director)
NCFST grew from meetings in the early 1980s of a group of Aboriginal advocates and service providers who saw a problem with the fact that Aboriginal children comprised 8% of all children in care despite their representing only 3% of the province’s children and youth. At that time 73% of status Indian children were adopted into non-Aboriginal families, some outside of Canada. Scathing indictments were emerging from a number of federal and provincial committees about how child welfare systems were treating Aboriginal Families. NCFST grew from the framework of regarding Aboriginal control of child welfare as legal and human rights issues. They developed a vision built from the perspectives of traditional people, Elders, community leaders, and experienced service providers that was carried through into successfully challenging policy barriers and developing a base of funding to support an intensive and comprehensive approach to their work.
There has to be strong board leadership, people who understand the system, know how to use the money, know what funders are looking for and can play by their rules. (Mary Ann Kelly, founding Board member)
In the last 25 years NCFST has moved from an unfunded volunteer committee to being the only off-reserve Aboriginal family services agency with a full mandate for child protection in Canada, a 24 million dollar budget, and over 200 staff members. The agency delivers extensive and wide-ranging programmes offering support to Aboriginal parents, children, youth, and other members of the urban Aboriginal community. Instead of being a singular focused Children’s Aid Society it can be seen and sees itself, as a holistic service that does Child Welfare as part an integrated system of services. NCFST has taken on services to youth as a high priority given that the future of its community hangs on having a strong leadership to chart its course. Early in its development staff recognized that many urban Aboriginal youth were lacking life supports: arriving in the city from reserves with minimal resources, isolated after adoptions broke down, newly released from group homes. They developed programmes to offer transitional housing for young women (including mothers and their children) and young men, and broad-based activities to support youth wellness. They offer integrated traditional healing and counselling for children, women, men and families and incorporate Aboriginal languages and cultural teachings with early childhood education and support for parents.
“You have to have some fun when you form an organisation from scratch. I’ve always told people, ‘Let’s laugh about this, and let’s enjoy it! Let’s not be miserable and negative.’ If I come and it’s all just stressful and nobody’s laughing, then why should I be a part of it?” (Gus Ashawasega, Elder and founding Board Member)
Early in the development of NCFST there was a conscious and concerted effort to develop a unified sense of purpose and to commence action based on this shared vision: as founding Board President Gus Ashawasega declared in 1985, “The time for studies is over, there have been numerous studies of Native people already.” Building from a board with a solid composition that included, lawyers, Elders, advocates, and service providers, they began to pressure the provincial government to act on the need to develop a Native child protection agency.
Their ability to overcome years of equivocation of provincial bureaucrats would seem to have come from several well-coordinated points of focus. These included persistent and, ultimately, legal challenges of provincial policy in collaboration with allies from policy maker and community sectors. An example is their engaging the prominent human rights lawyer Jeffery Wilson in lodging a case with the Ontario Supreme Court alleging discrimination against NCFST in order to obtain the child protection mandate. They have also developed a process of regular feedback from Elders and Aboriginal communities to maintain connection with the values upon which it was established and “to make sure the community stands behind” NCFST. This extends to their physical space, which asserts a strong urban Aboriginal presence, challenges invisibility and incorporates a cedar longhouse and a sweat lodge. Finally, NCFST has the rare quality among service organizations of having had continuity in its Executive Director, Kenn Richard, who has been present since the beginning. In his leadership he has worked actively to maintain what he refers to as “the original marching orders”, has built deep and lasting ties across communities and sectors, and has provided stability. This is critical in a service sector that suffers from a shortage of Aboriginal professionals and the challenge of maintaining trust in the community while holding a child protection mandate.