Mem­oir tells two sto­ries of res­i­den­tial schools

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Har­riet Zaid­man

FLORENCE Kae­fer al­ways thought fondly about the chil­dren she taught at Nor­way House In­dian Res­i­den­tial School in the 1950s. She was shocked and em­bar­rassed be­m­bar­rassed to learn, 40 years lalater, that many chil­dren tthere ex­pe­ri­enced emo­tional, phys­i­cal and sex­ual abuse at the hands of other school staff. Re­con­nect­ing with a for­mer sstu­dent, she was vaulted from qquiet re­tire­ment in Bri­tish Columbia onto a path that gar­nered na­tional at­ten­tion. Kae­fer’s mem­oir ful­fils a ppromise pub­li­cize the story of Ed­ward Gam­blin, “an un­will­ing cap­tive of the res­i­den­tial school sys­tem,” who had been her stu­dent in Grade 3. Gam­blin died at the age of 62 in June 2010, just as the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion be­gan gath­er­ing state­ments of for­mer res­i­den­tial school stu­dents. The nar­ra­tive al­ter­nates be­tween Kae­fer’s pleas­ant rec­ol­lec­tions and Gam­blin’s dis­turb­ing or­deal. She ad­mits she was a naive 19-year-old in awe at the beauty of the North as she em­barked on her first job af­ter one year of teacher train­ing. She re­calls the en­ergy she put into her teach­ing at the United Church-run school, and build­ing re­la­tion­ships with other young women that tra­versed dis­tances and decades. It was the era in which so­ci­ety ac­cepted the con­cept of the white Chris­tian “duty” to ed­u­cate the In­dian out of the In­dian. Kae­fer is now hor­ri­fied at the thought, imag­in­ing her own re­ac­tion if her chil­dren had been forcibly taken from her. Her starry mem­o­ries con­trast sharply with Gam­blin’s gritty prose about the daily nightmare that be­gan when he was taken from his fam­ily at age five and lasted un­til he could leave school at 16. Gam­blin writes about be­ing vi­ciously strapped by a teacher, be­ing sex­u­ally abused and threat­ened with drown­ing if he re­vealed what was hap­pen­ing. He re­mem­bers chil­dren de­lib­er­ately act­ing up in class to get de­ten­tion, their ploy to keep away from the res­i­dences and the clutch of sadis­tic su­per­vi­sors. “The only places that were safe were the class­rooms.” Like Kae­fer, there were other car­ing teach­ers un­aware of what oc­curred at night. In the process of or­ga­niz­ing reunions of for­mer col­leagues and stu­dents, she dis­cov­ered teach­ers who tried to re­port cruel or sex­ual mis­con­duct were reg­u­larly de­moted, trans­ferred or fired. Af­ter he left school, Gam­blin felt alien­ated from his home com­mu­nity and was sub­jected to racist re­jec­tion in Win­nipeg. He fell into de­spair and al­co­holism, end­ing up in jail for petty crimes. At age 32 he turned his life around, at­tended univer­sity and grad­u­ated with a de­gree in so­cial work. He worked as a coun­sel­lor and ex­pressed his emo­tions through mu­sic, be­com­ing a pop­u­lar coun­try singer in the abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity. His songs trace the shame he felt as he tried to es­cape: “Just a fool try­ing to hide/Run­nin, run­nin’ on the wrong side.” Gam­blin’s fam­ily couldn’t avoid the reper­cus­sions of racism and the res­i­den­tial sys­tem. He and his wife had six chil­dren, but lost one to sui­cide. He for­gave the men who abused him and wanted so­ci­ety to rec­on­cile. As a mea­sure of re­spect, Gam­blin adopted Kae­fer as his mother. Their re­la­tion­ship be­came the sub­ject of a CBC doc­u­men­tary. The Govern­ment of Canada and the churches that ran the res­i­den­tial schools apol­o­gized for the race-based sys­tem that robbed thou­sands of their child­hoods and their fam­i­lies, a sys­tem that had cat­a­strophic ef­fects on those young people and sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions, a sys­tem that re­ver­ber­ates to­day in the over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of abo­rig­i­nal people liv­ing in poverty, as well as in the child wel­fare and jus­tice sys­tems. Some progress has taken place as a re­sult of the brave step Gam­blin and oth­ers took in re­liv­ing their tor­ment. Their at­ti­tude of for­give­ness is an op­por­tu­nity to cre­ate a level play­ing field for abo­rig­i­nal people to achieve their po­ten­tial as Cana­di­ans.

Har­riet Zaid­man is a teacher-li­brar­ian in Win­nipeg.

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