Florence Kaefer, a former teacher at a United Church-run residential school. Photo by Quintin Winks
Florence Kaefer, a former teacher at a United Church-run residential school. Photo by Quintin Winks

Topics: Justice | Indigenous

Former residential school teacher reunites with one of her students

They hadn’t seen each other since he was a student at a residential school in Manitoba and she was a teacher. A chance reunion started a remarkable journey of healing.


Three years ago, Florence Kaefer was invited on a road trip through northern Manitoba with her sister and niece. Little did she suspect that this jaunt would become a life-altering voyage of discovery.

En route to Churchill, the travellers took a side trip to Norway House, where Kaefer had taught at the United Church-run residential school between 1954 and 1958. When they stopped at a nearby restaurant, Kaefer noticed a music CD for sale by the cash register. It was an album by singer-songwriter Edward Gamblin. “I remembered a little boy from my class by that name,” Kaefer says. “The clerk said he was from Cross Lake and Norway House, and he would be in his 50s, so I bought the CD.”

A few days and many kilometres later, Kaefer came across another Edward Gamblin CD called Cree Road. In a quiet moment in a hotel in The Pas, Kaefer popped the CD into a player. What came out was a shocking revelation. Gamblin was singing about her school, and it wasn’t a happy song.

Gamblin’s song Survivor’s Voice accords with all those tragic accounts that have recently become so familiar and will continue to emerge as governments, churches, school administrators and teachers seek to get to the truth about residential schools and move toward reconciliation with the First Nations people who were victimized by them.

Bickering among commissioners has derailed Canada’s formal Truth and Reconciliation process. But while the commission flounders, a handful of people like Florence Kaefer and Edward Gamblin are forging ahead with a truth and reconciliation process of their own. They say their process has taken some unexpected and illuminating turns.

The first truth of Gamblin’s experience is that, unlike many others, he was not ripped from a happy home and spirited away. His life before residential school was already sad and ugly, and residential school was, in some ways, an escape. “My biological parents were both alcoholic. They had their own agenda, and I guess children weren’t part of the agenda,” he says matter-of-factly. Gamblin went to a foster home and later to the residential school in Norway House.

Though the destruction of Gamblin’s childhood didn’t begin at the residential school, it certainly continued and intensified there. “My abuser at that time, the school supervisor, would yank me out of bed and make me recite the Lord’s Prayer,” he relates. “I was only five, and I didn’t know the language. My language was Cree.” For every mistake he made, Gamblin was punished with a beating.

The physical abuse was compounded with sexual abuse. Five-year-old Edward became entangled in a school supervisor’s perversity. A succession of other supervisors sexually abused him again at age 12 and then again at age 14. “Somehow, they slipped through the cracks,” Gamblin says. “They were shipped in from other schools because of what they had done there, and they continued on and on.”

Says Kaefer, with the clarity of hindsight, “The residential school was the very best place for brutal people to hide. The children were miles from home. They couldn’t run away without fear of being lost or frozen.”

Kaefer, now in her 70s, struggles to understand how she failed to see more clearly at the time and finds only the painful truth that she was too naive and preoccupied. “I was just 19. I didn’t question my government, and I didn’t question the leaders of my church,” she says. “I was so taken up with my duty to my pupils. I was very busy with work. They were my first years teaching, and I worked hard to be the best teacher I could be.”

Gamblin offers a consoling, if surprising alternative: Kaefer didn’t see the abuse because the children kept the truth from the staff they liked. On one occasion, for example, Gamblin came upon a supervisor having sex with a staff member on the floor of the children’s dorm. For this “offence,” Gamblin was beaten so badly on the wrists that other children had to feed him for several days until he healed. Why the wrists? The children wore long-sleeved shirts, so the supervisor hit him where the evidence could be covered up. And that’s what Gamblin did. Like the other children, he concealed his wounds and bruises under his clothes to hide the awful truth from those who might have helped him. He explains why: if the children spoke out about the abuse to trusted members of staff, and those staff members took up the children’s cause, matters would only become worse. “When someone did speak up for us, they were shipped away for threatening to expose what was going on,” he says. “That’s why we kept quiet.We didn’t want to lose them.”

Implicit in that assertion is a corollary truth not often heard in the rush to condemn the residential school system: some white residential school staff were respected, even loved, by their Aboriginal charges. Gamblin says he and his classmates at Norway House made a clear distinction. The school supervisor was feared like the devil; teachers like Kaefer were on the side of the angels.

That distinction, says Gamblin, led the children to devise strategies for survival. For example, it was a sadistic trick of the supervisor to tell the children as they set out for class what punishments they could expect when they returned at the end of their lessons. “You had to live in fear of that all day,” says Gamblin, “so we’d deliberately act up in class so we’d get a detention so we didn’t have to go back to the residence right away. The only places that were safe were the classrooms.”

All the pain left an indelible mark on Gamblin. He graduated from school an alcoholic, even though he had seen the devastation addiction had wrought on his birth parents. He was emotionally frozen, incapable of developing male friendships, he says. Intimacy with women was a problem, too. Though married, he cheated on his wife repeatedly in an attempt to prove to himself and to the community that sexual abuse by a man hadn’t stunted his heterosexual machismo.

This sad history was distilled into the song that Kaefer listened to in her hotel room in The Pas, and it was a dreadful revelation to the once-idealistic young teacher. “I was overcome,” Kaefer says. “I broke down and cried.” Talking about it now, she weeps again. As Gamblin knows, the residential school system injured two groups of people. There are the former students, like Gamblin, and there are well-intentioned, good-hearted former staff, like Kaefer, whose desire to help morphed into complicity in a grievous harm. When the words of the song sank in, Kaefer’s past was turned upside down. “I can never again think about teaching at Norway House in the same way.”

Kaefer was born Florence Pockett in Spirit River, Alta., and learned early to abhor racism. Her mother had a small cabin and Native people were always welcome. This was exceptional back in the day, Kaefer remembers.

Concern for social justice and a desire to work for the province’s First Nations ran in the family. “My Aunt Hannah in Winnipeg was Nellie McClung’s sister,” she says of the early feminist activist. Hannah and her husband worked on reserves, and they were heroes in young Florence’s eyes. “I was at teachers’ college in Winnipeg, and Rev. Ken McLeod came looking for teachers to teach at the new residential school at Norway House. I jumped at the chance. I said, ‘I’ll go.’”

Just days after she returned home from her road trip to Manitoba, Kaefer decided it was time to face the music. From Courtenay, B.C., where she now lives, Kaefer phoned Gamblin. “I said who I was. He said, ‘I remember you. You were my teacher.’ I said I had listened to his Cree Road song. I said I was so sorry to hear what had happened to him.”

The pause that followed filled Kaefer with dread. Was she among the vicious “They” of Gamblin’s song who broke his life? Was he steeling himself to pour out a torrent of bitter accusations that would haunt her for the rest of her life?

Gamblin spoke in a quiet voice. He was not angry — not with Kaefer. Indeed, the very opposite, Kaefer says. “He was so forgiving, so generous, so welcoming,” she recalls. “He said, ‘You’re the kind of person I would like to have in my healing circle. I would like to stand in front of my teachers and thank them for encouraging me to stay in school.’”

The following summer, Kaefer made the long trek back to Norway House to visit Gamblin and his wife, Aurelia, at their home. Gamblin has overcome his philandering impulse and is proud of his 39 years of marriage. He celebrates 30 years of sobriety and is an award-winning country musician. He has also reconnected with his Cree heritage. Accordingly, he filled the bowl of a peace pipe to share with Kaefer. “He lit sweet grass and sage, and we went through a smudging ceremony. The pipe went round the circle four times, and Edward took off his cap, wound his grey hair back and spoke in his beautiful Cree language,” Kaefer relates. “That began a wonderful relationship that goes on to this day.”

The relationship they have forged is mutually supportive. When Kaefer’s husband died, Gamblin was there for her as a spiritual healer and a caring friend. When Gamblin was recently hospitalized to have a leg amputated, Kaefer called daily and had her sister go and visit him.

Kaefer says she has found new purpose in the reconciliation process. She is now in touch with 16 of her former pupils, and she puts them in touch with each other. For Gamblin, this network has been a rich source of comfort. “You don’t have to bear it all inside you, not being able to talk about it,” he says. “It’s not so bad as when it was all inside you. At least it’s coming out.”

Kaefer says one of her former students, who now lives in Prince Albert, Sask., “phones and talks for hours, and I listen.” She has returned the artwork she kept from her teaching days and has sent the former students copies of her photographs. “Many have never seen pictures of themselves as children,” she says. Last June, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized for the residential school system, Kaefer went to the Louis Riel Hotel in Winnipeg where the local First Nations community had gathered to watch the ceremony on television. “I was the only white person in a crowd of 500 people. A reporter asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ I said, ‘I’m here because I was there.”

Another chance to step up was a meeting of the United Church Women of Manitoba convened by her sister and travelling companion, Laura Barclay. At Barclay’s invitation, Kaefer spoke about her spiritual voyage, then, “I had them stand in a big circle, and I said, ‘I want you to think — and I’ll do this myself, too — what can I do to make a difference?’”

Gamblin says that is how real reconciliation will come — individuals making an effort. The final truth he’s learned about reconciliation is that it will not be one grand, finite act.
It will be a multitude of small acts and gestures played out between individuals, and it will be ongoing until all the wounds have healed. Says Gamblin, “It doesn’t seem to work any other way.”

This story first appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Observer with the title ‘I remember you. You were my teacher.’ 

Richard Wright is a journalist in Toronto.


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  • says:

    My heart is deeply touched by this article. I knew very little about residential schools and the apologies until Robert McClure United Church in Calgary where I attend made this a key learning curve for our congregation. This article makes me feel like I was there too. Well written and so proud of the reunions and friendships redeveloped, faith in one another and our God that reconciliation is possible.