Teachers seek healing through truth commission

Residential school survivors are looking for healing and closure at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events in Winnipeg, and some former teachers are there too, seeking the same.
About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, which operated as recently as 1996.
Residential school survivors are looking for healing and closure at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events in Winnipeg, and some former teachers are there too, seeking the same.

Florence Kaefer taught in Norway House, Man., in the 1950s and now lives in B.C.

She said she had no idea how some students had suffered in the church-run, government-funded schools until she reconnected with one a few years ago and became close friends.

That person, Edward Gamblin, was just five years old when Kaefer met him. Now he is in hospital and she is attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's first national event at The Forks national historic site to honour him.

"He was so small, so the blue jeans, they rolled up the pant legs and they put a rope around his jeans because there was no belt small enough," Kaefer said, recalling when she met the young boy.

Gamblin always loved to perform, so Kaefer said she isn't surprised he grew up to be a musician. But she was surprised to hear his song a few years ago describing the cultural, physical and sexual abuse he endured at the Norway House school.

"I just cried. I told my sister that I can never think of teaching in the residential school the same way again," Kaefer said.

She called Gamblin after hearing the song. He told her he had to hide his abuse from the good teachers, for fear he would lose them if they found out what was happening and left.

He invited Kaefer to a healing circle in 2006 and they became close friends.

Kaefer said Gamblin taught her not to be embarrassed about her past, being a part of a school where abuse took place.

Children in a residential school classroom. (CBC)
"I was 19 and you don't question your church and your government when you're 19, but I certainly question my church and my government today," Kaefer said.

"I feel terrible about how these generous, welcoming people were treated."

Gamblin said Kaefer taught him to forgive.

"There are good people [teachers], who don't deserve to be labelled," he said.

Kaefer wanted to be at the TRC event to offer her sympathies and support to former students but also serve as a presence for Gamblin, who is stuck in the hospital and can't attend.

His wife just passed away and there was no one else to attend on his behalf.

Forced assimilation

About 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada from the late 1870s until the last school closed in 1996.

The schools were meant to force the assimilation of young aboriginal people into European-Canadian society.

A young girl prays at her bedside in a residential school. (CBC)
Many students were forbidden to speak their native languages or otherwise engage in their culture at the schools. There were some day schools, but most students stayed in residence, living on campus 10 months of the year, then going home for the summer.

Some were physically, sexually and psychologically abused at the schools.

The national event in Winnipeg, which began June 16 and ends June 19, is the first of seven national events that will take place across the country.

There are about 20 venues around The Forks, featuring art, performances, education, and other programming.

Pearl Achneepineskom attended the event to honour her brother, who was so disturbed by his treatment at a school in Kenora, Ont., that he risked freezing weather to run away.

He froze to death.

Achneepineskom, who was young and didn't attend the school, found out her brother had died when her sisters came home for summer break.

This week, she spent time making art in his memory and sharing his story.

Larry McMahon, who taught at the Lebret Residential School in Saskatchewan from 1961-65, also attended the event to give a private statement to the TRC and hoped to see some of his former students.

He said he was never abusive to his students but was embarrassed by the conduct of some colleagues.