Relearning Toronto’s First Stories
An interview with Amber Sandy, former Project Coordinator of the First Story Project
This interview was conducted in July 2016. It was hosted, transcribed and edited jointly by Amandeep Kaur Panag and Rio Rodriguez.
Audio excerpt #1 on Maple Syrup Fest (Transcript here)
Audio excerpt #2 on Toronto Islands (Transcript here)
Audio excerpt #3 on Toronto’s First Native Centre (Transcript here)
Amandeep: We absolutely love the First Story App. Can you tell us about how this Indigenous history project started?
Amber: Well, the First Story App is just one piece of the First Story project. First Story itself is a committee of people that existed before the app. It was born from a group of people who have been working for over 20 years in the history department of the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. It was historically a group of First Nations people, elders, activists, historians, professors, and people dedicated to preserving Indigenous history in Toronto. When I was hired as the history department coordinator, it was really exciting to be the first person to work specifically on the First Story App project. We have always done bus tours and walking tours before that. During the Pan Am games we were very involved in public education through those tours. The app is especially exciting because it holds a lot of documents, video, and citable archival material, and makes those histories so accessible.
Rio: What are the most important lessons from First Story that you’d like to share with Indigenous and non-Indigenous queer people?
Amber: I think that when you learn about the history of an area that you live in, or that you walk across to get to school or work, it gives you a deeper connection with the space you’re occupying. When I started that project, I was fairly new to Toronto and I didn’t feel connected to the city or larger community. Understanding the history of the first people here gave me a greater connection to the land and changed the way I think about Toronto. For example, I live near where Taddle Creek used to be. Indigenous people used that creek in many ways, but since the creek cut through the city, the city buried it. It’s still underground, and every time we have a big rainfall it comes up again. Taddle Creek was buried and a lot of these histories are buried too.
Indigenous archives were just ignored for a long time. They are not treated the same way that Canadian colonial archives are treated. For us to take on a project like this, it takes a lot of people fighting to get the money to be able to do this. People taking hours and hours of their own personal time, fuelled by their passion to preserve and share this knowledge. No communities besides the white community is represented in the history of Toronto. It’s rare that you walk by a plaque that is about anything besides colonial history. Ideally we would have some kind of archive that would be able to house all kinds of peoples’ histories. But there’s no space and no funding. Indigenous history is generally less cared for and less thought about.
Amandeep: What is the significance of using a Map for this project?
Amber: Mapping right now is one of the main things that First Nations communities are focusing on all across Canada. It’s a way to tell our stories, and to placemark significant areas. Mapping has made a big difference in negotiations with mining companies, or forestry, and has been important when the community is working on their own forestry initiatives. A lot of communities have their own GPS specialists hired to map out significant places in their communities. Historically First Nations people have been very verbal, rather than sitting down and writing it out, or drawing things. Having something visual can be very important to prompt understanding and prompt memories, and it can be engaging when it comes to documentation.
For First Story, we worked with the Centre for Community Mapping (CoMap). CoMap provided the software, built and now updates the First Story map. They are not for profit that runs out of the University of Waterloo who also worked with Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation. The Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation have a tumultuous history in this area, and mapping has been very important to them. Toronto is their land claim, they were the last people to occupy it, and the last people to sign over this land. Because of that they suffered a lot. Six Nations ended up giving them a plot of land to create their reserve on. For them, as such a displaced community, mapping their community has been very meaningful, because a lot of people have no idea where their relatives lived before. It also really helped them with their negotiations for land claim agreements.
I always like to say that mapping is a living document. Anybody doing work on it breathes life into it. Our histories are always changing, evolving, so we need the freedom to edit things, change things, add, remove, and mapping is a living time capsule.
Amandeep: Are there dominant maps that you think First Story intervenes in?
Amber: Before First Story I don’t think there was an Indigenous map of Toronto. Only settler maps. The ROM had some old maps that were drawn out by early settlers, and we were able to incorporate some of those into First Story App as we made our own Indigenous map. We want to be able to add to existing history and create alternatives to learn from. Because a lot of Indigenous histories have been buried and have gone untold. But they do exist. A lot of stories have been stored away in filing cabinets.
Rio: Was there existing research work that you were building on when you came on to the project?
Amber: Yes! The endless filing cabinets I mentioned, they exist at The Native Canadian Centre and at the University of Toronto. That collection was started by Rodney Bobiwash, who passed away several years ago. Rodney was incredible at community engagement. The passion he had for sharing that information, documenting it, making sure people knew that Indigenous people were here, has manifested the work that we do years later. I never met him, but I have spent so much time invested in the work that he had begun. His wife still continues his work. When I first got a job at the Native Centre, we were building on the collection and bus tour which Rodney had started. And by creating the First Story App, we were able to engage people in a way that maybe hadn’t been done since Rodney was around.
Rio: During your research, did you come across any gender nonconforming or Two Spirit histories?
Amber: It’s hard to pinpoint specifically. Because historically, many First Nations people continue to be not exclusive in our communities. People just are what they are. And gender and sexual diversity wasn’t necessarily a thing that would have been documented. So, studying specifically Two Spirit history is something that is really difficult, but I think there’s a lot of room for that to happen. It’s not something that I think local history projects have ever treated as something specific or different in that way as far as I know, but that history is there.
I also find it very interesting that the first ever location of the Native Canadian Centre was on Church Street. It was the first community hub that we ever had. There are interviews with elders who have now passed, saying how amazing it was. These are women and people who had moved to Toronto because they had gotten out of residential school, and found that they couldn’t live in their home communities. They couldn’t speak their language, they had lost so much of their culture. So they moved to Toronto, and worked as cleaners or nannies, or lived in women’s boarding houses, and they never had a space. So, the Native Canadian Centre started off in the 1950s as a group of Native people renting a room once a week at the Grosvenor YMCA, so that Native people could come gather. Then in 1963, a house at 603 Church Street was fundraised for, by making crafts and selling coffee and fundraising events. It was the first place ever that people could come in from the cold and sit with people who looked like them, and have a space for community. That is unbelieveable. Having that connection first happen on Church Street was really significant.
Rio: Can you tell us about the work that First Story is building upon?
Amber: Generally a lot of the Indigenous and Two Spirit work in Toronto I can think of – 2 Spirited People of the 1st Nations, 2spirit skillshare – all lot of this work and other community work stems from the historic work that our grandmothers and elders and aunties began. Many Indigenous services in the city today began as offices within the Native Canadian Centre. Native Child and Family Services, Anishnawbe Health, the Native Women’s Centre, all of these were born out of Indigenous people, mostly women, independently fundraising. There’s a lot of youth who now have opportunities for gaining employable skills, resume help, getting driver’s licenses, having a place to live if they’re homeless, and to exist in queer and Two Spirit inclusive spaces. It all started there, by this community that laid the groundwork.
When I started working with First Nations elders and seniors and in museum work, I saw this legacy. We wanted to go to the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and get hands-on experience in their archives with their collections behind closed doors. But when the elders discussed how they wanted that project to grow, they were very very insistent that we raise money in the way that they had always raised money. They didn’t want to write grants. They wanted to flip burgers and sell crafts. We raised enough money for the trip. And they love to talk about how they used to raise money as women in the Native Centre. Back in the day, this is how they organized their communities. It was actually their blood, sweat and tears that went into making things happen. We don’t raise money in that way often anymore, but it actually brings together the community.
Amandeep: Have you seen Indigenous history incorporated into POC histories, or do you think that gets separated?
Amber: I haven’t seen Indigenous history incorporated into POC histories, or queer community histories before, as terrible as it sounds. And you know, that is something I encounter with all of my work. People are generally scared to talk about histories that aren’t theirs, and particularly Indigenous histories remain buried. People are too used to this dominant story that ignores Indigenous history, and they don’t want to come across as being ignorant, or say something that someone might take offense to.
That’s why First Story is so important; it’s accessible to everybody. You have no excuse other than the fact that you didn’t download it to your phone and read it. We’re handing you everything, take it, know it. That’s what we want.
That’s a mission of mine, I want to be able to share as much as I can with people and make it common knowledge and make it something that we can incorporate into everyday life. Anishnaabe people specifically in this area are the first people here. Our history, Anishinaabe history, is everybody’s history. Everybody who decides to move here who lives on this land, it’s your history now, too.
Amandeep : We have to have that grounding, and be ready to learn about it.
Amber: It’s a starting point, absolutely.
Amber Sandy is a member of the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation. Amber was previously employed as Programme Coordinator for Turtle Island Conservation at the Toronto Zoo where her work was focused on community outreach and education, and integrating traditional and western science in her approach to conservation and stewardship. Amber was also the History Department Coordinator for the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, where she was involved with First Story Toronto, a volunteer committee dedicated to sharing and preserving the First Nations history of Toronto, and was a central figure in the development of a the First Story app, a mapping application for Smart phones documenting First Nations history and cultural events in the Toronto area.
She also currently volunteers for the ‘Memory, Meaning Making and Collections’ project which provides First Nations seniors in downtown Toronto with opportunities to interact with material collections.