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Edward Gamblin and Florence Kaefer share a moment in Mr. Gamblin's hospital room in Winnipeg on Thursday. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)
Edward Gamblin and Florence Kaefer share a moment in Mr. Gamblin's hospital room in Winnipeg on Thursday. (JOHN WOODS/John Woods for The Globe and Mail)

Residential schools

Healing comes full circle Add to ...

This truth and reconciliation commission consists of two people, a hospital room and some tear-jerking country twang.

They have overcome 2,000 kilometres of geography and 150 years of troubled history to join, hand to latex glove, mother to adopted son.

"I'm so glad you're here," says the lean man in the bed to the grey-haired woman in the gloves. "Come here and sit closer." A few kilometres away, thousands of people have gathered along the shores of the Red and Assiniboine rivers as part of the official Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a $60-million government effort to atone for 150 years mandating aboriginal residential schools.

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But the true grunt-work of forgiving the awful truths of those institutions is taking place here in Winnipeg's largest hospital, fourth floor, room 41, mind the ceremonial sweet-grass on the way in. The man in the bed is Edward Gamblin, a 62-year-old Cree country singer who experienced all that residential schools are now infamous for: isolation from family, violent punishments, abusive priests. The 75-year-old woman in the gloves is Florence Kaefer, his grade three residential school teacher. She's been tending his hospital bed for a week. Their private path towards friendship personifies everything the commission and the nation are aspiring towards.

It started in 1957 in a small Norway House classroom, 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

"Her class was a place of refuge for us children," says Mr. Gamblin, wearing a Native Pride cap. "She was a good teacher."

Others were not. Ms. Kaefer remembers hearing children crying for their families at night when she supervised the overcrowded dorm. She had no way of knowing that supervisors were physically and sexually abusing the children.

"I wasn't aware of what was really going on," says Ms. Kaefer, who was just 19 when she jumped at the chance to teach in the remote community. "I was there to teach."

She left after two years to teach at the now-infamous Port Alberni residential school in B.C., falling out of touch with her old students from Manitoba.

Once proud of her teaching resume, she stopped telling people she worked at residential schools by 1990, when revelations of sexual abuse at the institutions began hitting headlines.

"I was embarrassed," she says. "At the same time I was hurt that I was tarred with the same brush as those who abused."

But a late-blooming relationship with her old grade three student would change that shame to pride.

In 2006, she was travelling through Manitoba when she came across a CD of Edward Gamblin's country tunes. "I wonder if that's the boy I knew," she remembers thinking.

Later in the trip, she saw another Gamblin CD for sale, Cree Road. She bought it and read the liner notes while sitting on a hotel room in The Pas. "They said that when Edward was a child, he was sexually, physically, mentally and culturally abused at school in Norway House," she says. "I broke down in tears that hotel room and just cried and cried."

One tune in particular, Survivor's Song, drew more tears. "They took away my innocence and poured holy water on me," it goes. "They took my soul and placed it at the foot of their cross ... Eleven long years still haunting me."

She decided to confront Mr. Gamblin. She found his number, dialled it nervously, said hello and stated her name.

"I remember you," Mr. Gamblin replied. "You were my teacher."

After a long conversation, he invited her into his healing circle to smoke a peace pipe and work towards some sort of understanding of the past.

She travelled from her home in Courtenay, B.C. to meet him. "I hugged him," she says, "and told him how very sorry I was about what happened to him in school."

She has visited him several times since, even adopting him as a traditional son. They write letters often, addressed "Dear Son" and "Dear Mom."

Her latest trip east came for bleaker reasons. He was in this Winnipeg hospital with a heart conditions when his wife died. Ms. Kaefer rushed to his side, knowing that much of his family would return home for the funeral.

"I cherish her company, otherwise I would be very alone right now," he says, holding her gloved hand tightly. "This here is reconciliation on a one-to-one basis. That's the only way healing can work."

 

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