John and Sandra Barth were a young couple looking for adventure and meaningful work when they came north from California to Burns Lake, B.C. in 1970 as members of the Frontier Apostolates, a group set up to build and run schools for native and non-native children in the area.
Today, more than 40 years later, the couple has made Burns Lake their home and like others, have been stunned by allegations that the former chair of the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, John Furlong, physically and verbally abused students at the school at which they once taught.
While the allegations are almost certain to be considered in court, the court of public opinion is already divided, perhaps most strongly in Burns Lake. The community, which was already struggling to recover from a January mill explosion that destroyed the town’s main employer, is now grappling with another wave of media attention and wrenching, divisive questions.
Mr. Furlong, the former VANOC chief executive officer, has said the allegations published Thursday by the Georgia Straight are unfounded and vowed to take legal action as a result.
The Barths say they never met Mr. Furlong, adding they came to Burns Lake in 1970, a year after he had left the school.
But they recall hearing about him, especially his skill as an athlete, and also about a return visit he made to the school.
“The kids were excited,” Ms. Barth, now retired, said in an art gallery in Burns Lake on Friday, when she was minding the store for a friend. “The kids were saying, ‘Mr. Furlong is coming, Mr. Furlong is coming.’”
The couple are also disturbed by allegations that Mr. Furlong hit and yelled at students, saying that does not match with their memories of how they and other teachers operated at the school.
That said, Mr. Barth vividly remembers there was a strap at the school and that teachers had the right to use it until school regulations outlawed the practice in the 1970s.
Richard Perry also remembers a strap.
Mr. Perry, now 54 and a member of the Lake Babine First Nation, claims he was strapped repeatedly by nuns at the school and that the scars on his hands are the result.
Mr. Furlong, he alleges, would haul him in for discipline.
“He [Mr. Furlong] was the enforcer for the nuns,” Mr. Perry said on Friday, just outside the band office of the Lake Babine Nation, one of several bands in the area.
Mr. Perry said he filed an account of his school experiences in an affidavit, as did several other former students of the school.
The RCMP is investigating the allegations.
As questions swirl about Mr. Furlong’s behaviour at the school, there are also questions about why he didn’t mention his time in Burns Lake in his 2011 memoir, Patriot Hearts, and has instead said he came to Canada as an immigrant in 1974.
At a press conference Thursday, Mr. Furlong said his time in Burns Lake “was fairly brief and fairly uneventful.”
Wilf Adam, Lake Babine Nation Chief, says he hopes the RCMP will conduct a “thorough and timely” investigation.
Mr. Adam – while acknowledging Mr. Furlong’s accomplishments during the Olympics – says he had a run-in with Mr. Furlong when Mr. Adam was a teenage student in Prince George, B.C., and Mr. Furlong was a teacher, alleging that Mr. Furlong kicked him for calling the teacher by his first name.
And Mr. Adam claims that accounts of Mr. Furlong’s actions have long circulated in the community.
“It was widely known around here that he was rough on students,” Mr. Adam said Friday in Burns Lake.
He and others questioned why Mr. Furlong didn’t accompany the Olympic torch through the community or mention the town in his 2011 memoir.
Yet according to Andrea Shaw, managing partner with Twentyten Group, the company that oversees Mr. Furlong’s business affairs, it was Mr. Furlong’s respect for the community that resulted in it being put on the torch tour itinerary in the first place.
“On the initial route that we mapped out, Burns Lake wasn’t a stop,” Ms. Shaw said on Friday. “It was John’s respect for Burns Lake, and he actually said to me, ‘Andrea, I want you to stop in Burns Lake.’”
Mr. Furlong was not in Burns Lake when the torch passed through, Ms. Shaw confirmed, but did travel there to announce it.