Ex-res­i­den­tial school staffer re­unites with sur­vivor

Or­der of On­tario nom­i­nee Geraldine Robertson set to speak at rec­on­cil­i­a­tion sym­po­sium

The Observer (Sarnia) - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA SIMP­SON bsimp­son@postmedia.com

Marie Strapp could never for­get lit­tle Geraldine.

Ev­ery time the Grand Bend woman opened her photo al­bum for the next seven decades she was re­minded of the 10-year-old girl she had met while work­ing at Mount El­gin In­dian In­dus­trial School in Muncey, Ont.

In a black-and-white pho­to­graph, Geraldine – who would spend a year at the Muncey res­i­den­tial school – is get­ting hugged by an­other girl. A shy smile is on her face and she’s star­ing off into the dis­tance.

That im­age is one of the few pho­tographs Geraldine Robertson – now an Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion el­der – has of her child­hood, and she has it now thanks to an un­likely rec­on­cil­i­a­tion of sorts.

Strapp – Mount El­gin’s for­mer cam­era-tot­ing girls’ su­per­vi­sor – and Robertson – a res­i­den­tial school sur­vivor – re­cently re­con­nected more than seven decades af­ter their paths crossed at Mount El­gin In­dian In­dus­trial School.

The pair – Strapp, now 90, and Robertson, 81 – have now shared lunches, swapped sto­ries and even met ex­tended fam­ily.

“We email al­most ev­ery two to three days, so I’m just so glad we were able to meet each other,” Strapp said.

And while for out­siders it might seem like an awk­ward re­u­nion – Strapp a staffer in a res­i­den­tial school and Robertson a child who was trau­ma­tized by that very school sys­tem – Strapp said it hasn’t been un­com­fort­able at all be­cause both of the women re­call pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ences at the school.

Robertson – who would later be ex­posed to bul­ly­ing and strug­gle with hunger at Brant­ford’s Mo­hawk In­sti­tute – has fond mem­o­ries of her time at Mount El­gin.

Even Strapp – who spent a year work­ing at the school – can­not re­call wit­ness­ing any abuse dur­ing her time at Mount El­gin. She was also un­aware of any abuse hap­pen­ing at other res­i­den­tial schools at the time.

“Know­ing what I did then, I had no idea what the rest of the schools had been do­ing,” Strapp said. “I had no idea what hor­rors had been like when (Geraldine) went to Mo­hawk.”

Strapp has since learned in de­tail what Robertson ex­pe­ri­enced at Mo­hawk In­sti­tute be­cause the Aamji­w­naang el­der has shared her story across Canada, in­clud­ing at Grand Bend’s Huron Shores United Church.

Strapp is part of that church’s right re­la­tions work­ing group.

“When I think about (the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem) now, I think, ‘If I had known then what I know now, it’d be a whole dif­fer­ent story,’ but in those days, it seemed like a rea­son­able thing to do,” said Strapp, who was just 18 when she started work­ing at Mount El­gin.

But Strapp’s eyes have been opened thanks in part to res­i­den­tial school sur­vivors, like Robertson, shar­ing their sto­ries.

“I’m so proud of Geraldine for all she’s been do­ing,” Strapp said. “She’s an amaz­ing woman. I just love her.”

Strapp and the rest of Huron Shores’ right re­la­tions work­ing group re­cently nom­i­nated Robertson for the Or­der of On­tario – the province’s high­est hon­our be­stowed on in­di­vid­u­als who show ex­cel­lence and achieve­ment – for her work rais­ing aware­ness about the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem.

Robertson will be par­tic­i­pat­ing in Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion’s first-ever Indige­nous Ed­u­ca­tors’ Sym­po­sium set for May 4 and 5.

The two-day sym­po­sium will fea­ture guest speak­ers like Min­neapo­lis-based Indige­nous lan­guage spe­cial­ist James Vuke­lich and Mis­sis­sauga-based Indige­nous artist Eddy Robin­son.

Ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers with the Lambton Kent Dis­trict School Board have been in­vited to the sym­po­sium.

“Our goal is to pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for dis­cus­sion about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion through ed­u­ca­tion,” said Vicki Ware, ed­u­ca­tion co­or­di­na­tor with Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion.

In 2015, the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion of Canada re­leased in its fi­nal re­port what it called 94 “calls to ac­tion” – rec­om­mended im­prove­ments to pub­licly-funded sys­tems like health care and ed­u­ca­tion to re­dress the le­gacy of res­i­den­tial schools and ad­vance the process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion.

Ware said Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion wants to sup­port the lo­cal school board in im­ple­ment­ing some of those calls to ac­tion.

“(The sym­po­sium is) also an op­por­tu­nity for us to get to­gether to talk about some of the changes that are go­ing to be hap­pen­ing in ed­u­ca­tion as we move for­ward with self-gov­ern­ment with the Anishin­abek Ed­u­ca­tion Sys­tem,” Ware added.

The re­cently-rat­i­fied deal – be­tween mem­bers of the Union of On­tario In­di­ans, the Gov­ern­ment of Canada and On­tario’s Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion – al­lows First Na­tion com­mu­ni­ties to have greater con­trol over the ed­u­ca­tion of their chil­dren.

“What will hap­pen is the Anishin­abek Ed­u­ca­tion Sys­tem will strengthen First Na­tions com­mu­ni­ties but also pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity for the pro­vin­cial schools,” Ware said. “The ped­a­gogy will be more cul­tur­ally rel­e­vant and tai­lored to Indige­nous learn­ers, so that’s what we hope the sys­tem will bring to the Lambton Kent Dis­trict School Board...”

The Indige­nous Ed­u­ca­tors’ Sym­po­sium is planned for the Aamji­w­naang Maawn Doosh Gamig Com­mu­nity and Youth Cen­tre May 4 and 5. For more in­for­ma­tion about the event, email Aamji­w­naang spe­cial projects ad­min­is­tra­tor Ma­rina Plain at md­plain@gmail.com or call 519336-8410.

LYNDA HILL­MAN-RAPLEY/POSTMEDIA NET­WORK

Marie Strapp, 90, of Grand Bend, looks at a photo she took of Geraldine Robertson at the for­mer Mount El­gin In­dian In­dus­trial School in Muncey, Ont. Strapp, who worked at the res­i­den­tial school, re­cently re­con­nected with Robertson who is now an Aamji­w­naang First Na­tion el­der who shares her story as a res­i­den­tial school sur­vivor.

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