Award winner drives change in Toronto

December 4, 2013
Stephanie Harrington
Steven Vanloffeld

Steven Vanloffeld had $40 to his name when he moved to Toronto.

In less than three years, the Royal Roads master’s student went from being homeless to executive director of Toronto Aboriginal Support Services Council (TASSC), a policy and research group focused on improving the lives of aboriginal people in Toronto. But it took hard work and determination.

“I lost everything in a fire in Ottawa,” Vanloffeld says. “I took the cash I had and caught the midnight bus to Toronto. I got off the bus at 6 a.m., found shelter through the Salvation Army and began to put the pieces back together.”

Vanloffeld, who has a background in political science and advertising, used vouchers from victim services to buy a second-hand suit. He found work and started to rebuild his life, taking up the role at TASSC in January.

An Ojibway from Saugeen First Nation, near Owen Sound, Ont., Vanloffeld is past president of the Aboriginal Peoples’ Commission of the Liberal Party of Canada (Ontario region), and former board member of Native Men’s Residence and Native Child and Family Services of Toronto. He started 4-Direction Networking, a group that gives aboriginal youth and students a say on issues that affect their lives. As well as working full time, Vanloffeld is completing a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies at Royal Roads.

The City of Toronto today (Dec. 4) awarded Vanloffeld its Aboriginal Affairs Award for making a significant contribution to the wellbeing and advancement of Aboriginal Peoples. He used the occasion to launch a website called Indigenous Innovation, a platform for aboriginal people to share success stories and foster innovation through mentoring and support.

“Even if I’m receiving an award,” Vanloffeld says, “I’m thinking about how to use it as an opportunity to benefit the community.”

Office of Interdisciplinary Studies program head Wendy Schissel says Vanloffeld is an energetic and committed student.

“He is virtually charging through his individualized degree and attaining top grades while doing so,” she says. “In addition to the important work he does as Toronto’s executive director for TASSC, his energy and commitment, like so many of our students, is expressed further through his concern and activism.”

Vanloffeld’s master’s thesis will focus on improving ways to give Toronto’s aboriginal population, the third largest in Canada, more power in policy and decision-making.

“There are 70,000 aboriginal people in Toronto but no elected body to represent us (like a chief and council), so in spite of our large number our voices and concerns often go unheard. How, with an increasing number of aboriginal people residing in urban areas, can we have a say?

“My goal would be to identify the processes and mechanisms for consultation with aboriginal people leading to an elected body that unifies aboriginal people.”

Vanloffeld says his mother, a residential schools survivor and double-leg amputee who passed away when he was 14 years old, inspired him to work hard.

“Nobody could hold her back,” he says.

It’s clear that politics is in the plan for Vanloffeld, who was the first aboriginal president of his high school.

“Elected office is part of a larger life goal, because that’s where change happens,” he says. “At the outset of everything I do, I ask myself, ‘is there going to be a marked improvement in the health and vitality of my community?’ That’s what drives me.”