Sage Paul remembers her years at Gabriel Dumont, an Indigenous non-profit housing complex in Scarborough, in two very different ways.  

On the one hand, it was the setting of her carefree childhood, where she was immersed in her Aboriginal culture and enveloped by the protection of a tight-knit community.

Today, through the experienced eyes of an adult, she recognizes it was a "rough" place where violence and addiction permeated the neighbourhood.

"As a child I was so happy, and loved it.  But now I look back and I get why my mom got us to move out of Scarborough," she remembers.

"I remember there were a lot of gangs so we weren't allowed to go specific places.  There was alcoholism, and violent things, like stabbings, in the neighbourhood."

Her own parents — both artists — were careful to shield her from the community's troubles and keep her focused on more productive things, including learning about her family's roots in English River First Nation in northern Saskatchewan.

"You know they did work very hard to make sure we had a sense of safety and belonging and ownership over this space too," she told CBC Metro Morning's Matt Galloway on a recent visit to Gabriel Dumont, her first in 15 years.   

"I think I was very lucky."

It all informs her work today.

Matt Galloway and Sage Paul

Metro Morning's Matt Galloway spoke to Toronto artist Sage Paul in Scarborough's Galloway Park. (Craig Chivers\CBC)

The George Brown College graduate is a visual and performance artist whose work has been shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and Harbourfront, among other places.  Her fashion incubator, called Setsuné — Dene for grandmother — holds workshops on traditional First Nations arts such as indigo dying and hide tanning. 

Her family was among the first to move into the new housing complex, which was built in 1986, one of a handful that serves Toronto's Indigenous population.  They stayed until she was 13 years old, when her family found new housing downtown.  

At the time, non-profit housing was a step-up out of poverty, she explains.  Being surrounded by people with similar experiences and cultures was a bonus.

Paul remembers a tight-knit community where people took pride in their Indigenous cultures.  Parents rallied the local school, Eastview Junior, to teach Ojibway to students.  

The community held powwows in nearby Galloway Park, where she remembers making the regalia. Community events in the park provided an escape from the housing complex, and a "connection to the land and earth," she said.

Paul's parents organized a parade called Buffalo Jump Ahead at the Scarborough bluffs, a summer solstice celebration that acknowledged the traditional buffalo hunt.  

The events allowed residents to maintain a sense of identity, says Paul.

Today, she says people she grew up with are all doing well, despite what could have been a challenging childhood.

"Growing up in a place like this and having that grounding in our culture and our ancestry has allowed us to have that strength within ourselves."

During the recent visit, some local residents asked Paul if she had "escaped" the community.

"I'm happy my mom could bring us to a place where we weren't living in poverty," she explained.   "But I don't feel like I 'escaped' because it shaped who I am."

"I didn't 'escape,' I just grew."