Manitoba

60 years after he ran away from residential school, survivor searches for woman who helped him

Sixty years after he ran away from a Kenora residential school, a survivor is hoping to reunite with the woman who helped him decades ago.

'Because of her, I don't want revenge,' says Gordon Beardy, who ran away from same school as Chanie Wenjack

Gordon Beardy, 71, is a residential school survivor. At age 11, he ran away from Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in northwestern Ontario. Sharing his story is part of his healing journey, he says. (Travis Golby/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Sixty years after he ran away from a northwestern Ontario residential school, a survivor is hoping to reunite with the woman who helped him all those decades ago.

Gordon Beardy, 71, is now chief of Muskrat Dam Lake First Nation, about 450 kilometres northwest of Kenora, Ont. In 1996, he was the first Indigenous person in Canada to become an Anglican diocesan, or senior, bishop.

But as a child, he was forced to attend Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora — the school he ran away from in the spring of 1962, at age 11, with three friends. 

That school became notorious when another boy, Chanie Wenjack, died while trying to run away in 1966.

"There's horrible things that happened there. Sometimes, I don't talk about it," said Beardy. 

"There were many things you were strapped for, things that normally you wouldn't strap somebody [for]."

He didn't feel recognized as a person at the school, he says, and in the spring ran away because he wanted to return to his parents in Bearskin Lake First Nation — more than 500 kilometres northeast of Kenora — who loved and cared for him.

Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School, opened in 1929, was operated by the Presbyterian Church until 1969 and closed in 1976. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives)

Beardy and his friends walked for two nights to Redditt, Ont., a township nearly 30 kilometres north of Kenora. The boys hid during the day and walked at night, Beardy says.

But when he grew tired and collapsed from exhaustion, he got separated from his friends. Alone, Beardy waited in a dark corner of the train station in Redditt, planning to hop on the next train regardless of where it was going.

But then a woman with a dog appeared. She pointed out her home to Beardy and told him to come by if he needed anything.

"At that point, I wanted to die," said Beardy. Reluctant but hungry, he eventually went to the woman's porch.

She and her husband gave Beardy a sandwich, but he initially refused to enter the house, fearing the police would be called to take him back to the school.

'A caring for life'

But the woman pleaded for him to come into the house, so he did.

He spent three days there, eating and playing with the couple's young son. Beardy says during the first two days, there were no conversations between him and the woman, who mostly sat knitting quietly.

On the third day, he told the woman he came from Cecilia Jeffrey. She told him she already knew he had fled from the school, he said.

"And what touched me most was when she said to me, 'I want to know why you ran away,'" said Beardy. "She cared enough to want to know what was going on."

WATCH | Gordon Beardy on returning to residential school after running away:

A painful return

4 months ago
Duration 1:09
Residential school survivor Gordon Beardy recalls the conversation he had with the woman before she took him back to Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont.

The 11-year-old Beardy told the woman, who was white, he did not understand her people's way of life or the reasons for punishment at Cecilia Jeffrey. When he told the woman that her people were "mean," she replied not all were.

She also told Beardy she had to take him back to the school.

"I know," he replied.

Probably, if I were to meet her, I would just hug her and have a good cry, and she would know why.​​​​​​- Gordon Beardy

When they arrived at Cecilia Jeffrey, the woman made Beardy wait in the car while she went inside to speak to the principal. When the woman returned, she put a sweater on him that she had knitted during his stay.

She told him everything would be OK, and that he should "go home."

"And I wasn't punished," Beardy said. "The other ones that I was with, later, they were stripped naked and paraded around the dining room. I don't know what she said to the principal."

Beardy endured the rest of that school year, but didn't return to Cecilia Jeffrey the following year. He did not speak English again until he was 25 years old, he says.

Beardy has thought of the woman from Redditt many times over the last 60 years, he says, but never saw her again. 

He cannot recall her name or address, but he now hopes to find and meet her if she is still alive.

Finding her family or gravesite would also provide closure, he says.


"There's nothing I would say to her. Probably, if I were to meet her, I would just hug her and have a good cry, and she would know why," he said.

The woman had "a caring for life," says Beardy, who calls her his "angel mother."

In an attempt to identify the woman last September, Jason Beardy, Gordon's son, posted a letter his father wrote to her on Facebook.

Although the post was shared nearly 700 times, the woman's identity has yet to be confirmed.

'Profound loneliness'

The school Beardy ran away from opened in 1929 and was initially operated by the Presbyterian Church of Canada, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation says. It replaced a boarding school with the same name that was near Shoal Lake and opened in 1902.

The federal government took over operation of Cecilia Jeffrey in 1969, and the school closed in 1976. 

But the school was still being operated by the Presbyterian Church in 1966, when 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack ran away.

Like Beardy, Chanie made it to Redditt.

His body was found nearly 20 kilometres east of the township. He had died of exposure and hunger after leaving Redditt, in an attempt to walk home alone.

The death of the boy — misnamed "Charlie" by teachers — drew national attention and sparked the first inquest into the treatment of Indigenous children at Canadian residential schools, following the release of a 1967 Maclean's magazine article called "The Lonely Death of Charlie Wenjack."

The article was also the inspiration for Gord Downie's 2016 graphic novel, film and album Secret Path.

The Presbyterian Church issued a specific apology to former students of Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in 2013. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives)

In 1994, the Presbyterian Church adopted a confession that recognized its role in operating residential schools, as well as the harm those schools caused to Indigenous children and their communities. 

It issued a specific apology to former Cecilia Jeffrey students at a gathering in 2013, prompted by the release of a report that revealed students there were unwittingly subjected to experimental treatments for ear infections, causing deafness in some cases.

Peter Bush, a teaching elder at St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Fergus, Ont., gave the 2013 apology on behalf of the church and spoke with survivors at the event.

He told CBC News some of the documented punishments students faced at Cecilia Jeffrey, such as strapping and children being thrown against walls, would not be acceptable in any shape or form today.

The schools were places of "profound loneliness" for students, said Bush.

"And we helped perpetrate that loneliness."

WATCH | Gordon Beardy describes his healing journey:

A cross to bear

4 months ago
Duration 0:47
Six decades after leaving Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., Gordon Beardy describes his healing journey.

'We were children'

When the Presbyterian Church offered its apology, Beardy said he did not listen.

"Sometimes, it's better not to say anything, but to show it by action," he said.

Bush agrees, and says the Kenora Fellowship Centre, an Indigenous ministry non-profit that serves homeless people, is one example of his church's actions toward reconciliation.

But Beardy said he wanted to be contacted by the Presbyterian Church of Canada directly. 

On Pope Francis's recent apology for the role some members of the Catholic Church played in Canada's residential school system, Beardy said he's not sure that would have happened if a delegation of survivors had not travelled to the Vatican.

A true apology should never have to be "pressured" out of someone, Beardy said.

"And the other thing too is their Bible says the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is children," he said.

"We were children," he said. "How do they interpret their Bible?"

Beardy said he still struggles as a residential school survivor, because he has been made to wear "the mark of abuse." 

He had a hard time talking about Cecilia Jeffrey with his children, he says, comparing that to "giving garbage" to people he loved.

But he believes sharing his story is part of his own healing journey. Every residential school survivor will find their own understanding of healing, says Beardy.

And people like the woman in Redditt, he says, are the ones who will help make reconciliation possible.

"One thing I've learned is, because of her, I don't want revenge," he said.

"There's nice people out there like her, and I wish there were more."

60 years after he ran away from residential school, survivor searches for woman who helped him

4 months ago
Duration 2:37
Sixty years after he ran away from a northwestern Ontario residential school, Gordon Beardy, is hoping to reunite with the woman who helped him all those decades ago.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Clarifications

  • We initially reported that the school Gordon Beardy attended was built in 1901. In fact, Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora was built in 1928; an earlier school with the same name operated near Shoal Lake starting in 1902.
    Apr 19, 2022 9:58 AM CT

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Özten Shebahkeget is currently an MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan and a reporter with CBC Manitoba. You can reach her at ozten.shebahkeget@cbc.ca

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