Protecting Our Children: Kenn Richard Speaks Out

After we become human beings again, then we see how creation, Mother Earth, the universe, the cosmos, and our children carry the purity of life around us. The sacred teachings of our ancestors are peace, justice, unity, righteousness, respect, and harmony. Our grandmas and grandpas passed on everything they could after colonization, and the ones who were not touched by colonization know the law of the natural world. Many of the indigenous peoples of the world are carrying the spiritual teachings of their ancestors, the Good Mind, the Good Hearted People.

Our children must be protected, defended, and loved by these sacred teachings and the way of life that nourished our ancestors when Mother Earth was once clean, fresh, full of fertility and power—when our plant life, rivers, lakes, oceans, and all creation was pure and clean! The four-legged, the fish life, the insects and winged ones are still our relatives. This way of life is for our children to know and experience.

My brother Kenn Richard is a founder of the organization Native Child and Family Services of Toronto. This article is about how Native Child and Family Services began with the wisdom and spirit of our people, who knew things had to change for our children and our people in order for us to survive in a better way. This story is dedicated to the staff and parents who seek healing and protecting for Native children and life!


Kenn Richard, Founder of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto

Kenn Richard, Founder of Native Child and Family Services of Toronto

My name is Kenneth Denis Leo Fidel Richard. I guess I got saints in there, and my grandfather’s name was Fidel. My first name Kenneth is not a French or Métis name, it’s Scottish. That kind of tells you that I am from Winnipeg, Manitoba. I was born in St. Boniface hospital, pretty much at the forks of the Red and Assinaboine rivers in St. Boniface. My father is a Richard, my mother a Morrissette, both big names up and down those rivers from the days of the Pembina Territory. My father was born in the house of Cuthbert Grant, the famous Métis “Warden of Plains” responsible for what they called the Seven Oaks Massacre, so this Manitoba history is infused in my blood. All this I became aware of later in life, as we never grew up talking about the history or our place in it.

My mom was a housekeeper at the Fort Garry hotel. My dad was a construction worker all his life. It was a good life but a rough one back in that day. Five people in a one bedroom “wartime” house. I guess I owe the Jesuits for my education. For about ten seconds I thought of becoming a priest, but snapped out of that at puberty. Not only am I the first generation to live in the city, I am also among the first to graduate from university.

I lived in days before Indigenous issues were talked about. For the first twenty years of my life, I was relatively unconscious, just enjoying the sixties, playing drums in a band called the Sugar and Spice. Then I got a social work degree, and that changed everything. I eventually became a child protection worker, although I never had any inkling to do so.

I worked for the Children’s Aid Society of Winnipeg, one of the most oppressive of all children’s aid societies. It was an apprehension machine, and there I am, a young guy trying to understand what’s happening. I carry a caseload of Native families and kids who by the standard of the day were at risk, terrible poverty with inadequate everything, and addictions blowing it all up. While the conditions of the families were dire, I rarely saw the benefit of apprehending the kids. I worked my ass off to keep the families together, which I mostly did.

In that process, I appreciated that it was really complicated, Child Welfare and the Sixties Scoop. Kids were in distress back then, and their parents were not only poor, they were carrying a lot of trauma as well. It was not talked about in those days; the residential school stuff came out in addictions and bad behaviours.

The services provided were not effective. Truly, they did not resonate with the people they were serving. It was mostly children’s aid workers apprehending kids, probation officers keeping kids restrained, that kind of social control stuff. My consciousness grew, and I wanted change for a multitude of reasons, mostly because I could see myself in these children. I could feel a resonance there, though my life was not so bad. I formed myself in the sixties. I was a musician, and it was a gift to have that lifestyle because it helped deliver me to the place where I am now. From there, working in child welfare in the bad days set me on a path of working as a children’s advocate, a path that I travel today.

I did some work in Winnipeg, but it really came to fruition when I joined my girlfriend in Toronto. In the early stages of my life in Toronto, I worked for the Children’s Aid Society but eventually met a guy name Gus Ashawasege. Gus is passed now. He was a residential survivor. He was one of those guys that was everywhere, doing everything. When you look back at Anishnawbe Health Toronto, Aboriginal Legal Services, Native Child and Family Services, guess what? Gus was the president of all those boards in the early stages, and he became a real mentor. When I got to know him, he asked me to join a group that was looking at child welfare issues. They needed someone who had experience. I joined the committee, and that was the beginning of the development of this Native Child and Family Services here in Toronto in the mid ’80s.

A bunch of community members concerned about kids, getting together and saying what are we going to do? It’s corny to hear that phrase “let’s get together,” but this was that in action! There was Priscilla Hughit, Gus Ashawasega, Maryanne Kelly, Reva Jewel, Emma King, Nelly Ashawasega, Wilson Ashkwe, people from the old Indian community of Toronto some would call them. They were the first to kick off this kind of development, and I wanted to help. Not only because I wanted to help—this is what I started in Manitoba. Gus’s offer was a gift to me because this was all about the social justice I wanted to address since having those experiences in child welfare back home.

We had an elder on this board named Wilson Ashkwe. Wilson was very gifted. His day job was a bureaucrat for the Feds, otherwise he was an herbalist; he could doctor, and he knew his stuff. We all went to Stony Lake with Jim Dumont for a visioning event. Wilson checked that lake all day, waiting. I asked about that, and he said he was expecting a certain root to pop up that he needed. Soon he was dragging what looked like a tree behind him saying he could eat now, and that’s what we did. He knew things that I didn’t know, that’s for sure! He was on our hiring committee. We went through lots of resumes for people applying for the first executive director’s position, and we were disappointed. Wilson said, “Why don’t we just hire this guy in the cowboy boots,” referring to and pointing at me. That was, for me, a magical intervention. In that moment, Wilson charted my whole life. I owe both Gus and Wilson, old time residential school survivors, both traumatized I am sure, but both having sufficient strength and resilience of spirit to do the work that they did. They basically gifted me with this position and I have been here since 1988.