Content warning: this article contains information that may be painful for some readers. The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience. They can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
On Thursday, September 30 a coalition of hundreds of Indigenous people and allies rallied at Yonge St. and Dundas St., followed by a march and road occupations through the streets of Toronto on the way to Native Child and Family Services Toronto.
The rally was organized and led by a newer group of Toronto-based Indigenous mothers, grandmothers, and aunts called the Matriarchal Circle. They have extensive first-hand experience with government agencies that have enacted well-documented harm against Indigenous people, including Native Child and Family Services Toronto (NCFST), Catholic Children’s Aid Society, the RCMP, the Toronto Police Services, the Canadian prison system, and Residential Schools.
“There are more children in the child welfare system than at the height of residential schools,” said Katherine Gandy, a Secwépemc and Ojibweone grassroots organizer with the Matriarchal Circle and a leader during the march on September 30. Gandy herself was successful in getting her young boys back to her family home, and they attended the rally along with friends.
“You are following genocidal and discriminatory orders. Matriarchal Circle will ensure that this taking of Indigenous children in Toronto will end, and beyond,” she said later at the occupied intersection. She denounced the clearing of unhoused Indigenous people from public parks this summer in Toronto.
Gandy also called out Native Child and Family Services Toronto Executive Director Jeffrey Schiffer. Schiffer made over $225,000 last year as Executive Director. “I don’t care what Jeffrey Schiffer says, I don’t care what [NCFST Board of Directors President] Mae Maracle or any other executive says,” she added before describing her 11-year fight against NCFST trying to get her young boys back home.
“There is a direct correlation between the Residential Schools’ genocidal legacy and the current overrepresentation of Indigenous children in Canada’s child welfare system,” said Gandy in a later interview. “There’s racism that’s prevalent in the media. That’s another system that needs to be decolonized. Indigenous voices matter. Unfortunately, the ongoing discoveries of Indigenous children has not remained consistent,” she said in response to the waning attention since the first discoveries of 215 children’s graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School this May. The number has since climbed far higher.
Westwind Evening, a Residential School and 60's Scoop survivor, elder and knowledge keeper, addressed the crowd at the end of the rally and said that this is the first round of discoveries of Indigenous children and that the second will be all of the children in child welfare services.
Benisi, another Matriarchal Circle member, shared her family’s experiences with the carceral system in Canada. Both of her daughters are facing decades-long prison sentences for violent crimes (one is alleged as the case is still ongoing). “When I had my kids, they were in school 100% [of the time]. In the three or four years that they had my children, they were in school maybe one or two months,” Benisi said about her daughters’ formative experiences, being taken away from her by child welfare services. “One of the workers was sexually harassing them. He would go into her room and watch her change.”
As the march ended at Native Child and Family Services Toronto the speakers and music continued. Upon arriving at NCFST the employees inside turned up the volume on the soft rock music playing from their outdoor speakers. “They’re laughing at us,” Gandy said to the crowd as some moved toward the windows to see the employees at the reception inside, looking out onto the crowd. Dozens of attendees demanded that NCFST turn the music off with no results. Gandy pointed out the irony of NCFST employees refusing to listen to the Indigenous community on the first Day of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada.
There was a moment of silence about half an hour after arriving at NCFST to remember the thousands of Indigenous children who were discovered at residential school mass graves over the summer, and those yet to be discovered. At this point, when organizers demanded the music be turned off, NCFST employees obliged.
Dani, an Indigenous organizer who was present throughout the day, said that the Toronto District School Board encouraged her as a teenager to work for NCFST. She said she had horrible experiences with NCFST as a camp counselor, including being reprimanded for reporting her witnessing of a 15-year-old counselor kissing a 12-year-old camper. “There is no benefit to native child protective services, they don’t offer anything extra. They slap a native label on it and call it a day,” she said before repeating the demand that NCFST be disbanded.
Several other Indigenous speakers and allies who were asked to help MC the event took the microphone to share their stories. Gabriel, one of these settler allies, described the current situation as a “government and church led genocide attempting to eradicate an entire people from the face of the Earth. What would you do if it was your child?” Gabriel’s family did not survive the Holocaust during the Second World War.
Joey, an Indigenous knowledge keeper, took the microphone at the end of the planned speeches in Dundas Square while other drummers assembled. Joey said that all peoples on this land are related, all except, “the colonizers and white supremacists.”
By the time the intersection at Yonge St. and Dundas St. was occupied just afternoon there were several hundred people present. Indigenous organizers strategically set off peaceful orange smoke bombs to mark the street where the large crowd had closed off the intersection, with over a dozen marshals on foot or bicycles surrounding the crowd and keeping traffic at bay.
Guardians of the Children, a Canadian motorcycle enthusiasts’ club, was among the groups in attendance supporting the march. As Yonge Street at Dundas Street, then at College Street were occupied, GOC riders with their large motorcycles rode into the centre of the intersections as part of the setup. Some bikes had orange “Every Child Matters” flags on them. At each new spot they were greeted by loud cheering from the crowd. GOC also held a ride and barbecue on Saturday, October 1 in support of this cause.
Matriarchal Circle invited Indigenous people and allies several times into round dances at the occupied intersections, and dozens joined in. Many drum songs and the American Indian Movement song were heard. At Yonge and Dundas the organizers even managed to get popular Indigenous hand drum duo Chubby Cree to perform a live song via internet link through the speakers at the intersection. The rally ended at NCFST on College Street where some of the crowd stayed for three hours until about 5pm.