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Unlikely Friends: A Story of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Today is The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation: a day to recognize the legacy of the residential school system, and to honour those who were taken and those who never returned home. It is a day for reflection, remembering, and mending broken relations.

It can be easy to pretend that atrocities committed against Indigenous people are in the past and that you and I are not responsible for mending relationships. But this is not Canada’s distant past. The survivors of residential schools are still here, and the policymakers, government officials, teachers, and staff who implemented the programs that continue to harm Indigenous people are still alive. They are our grandparents, parents, our aunts, uncles, and perhaps even you. So today, as you reflect on what your act of reconciliation should be, I want to share with you how an act of reconciliation led to the unlikely friendship between Edwin Gamblin and Florence Kaefer.

Florence Kaefer
Picture of Florence after her first year of teaching in 1954. Picture retrieved from Back to the Red Road.

Florence Kaefer is a former schoolteacher, who began her teaching career in 1954 at Norway House, a United Church Residential School in Manitoba. She taught in a series of ‘Indian Schools’, as they were then called, throughout Manitoba and BC until 1964.[1] When the brutality and sexual violence of residential schools were exposed, she was horrified and was reluctant to tell anyone she had taught in residential and day schools.

But that all changed when she bought a CD by singer-songwriter Edward Gamblin in 2006. Edward was a residential school survivor and his songs recounted all of the tragic moments in his life, including his time in a residential school. The songs hit Florence hard. Not only had she been a residential schoolteacher, but she had been HIS teacher.

Picture of Edward with his kindergarten report card at Norway House. Picture retrieved from Back to the Red Road.

When Edward was 5 years old, Edward was sent to Norway House; marking the beginning of his eleven years within the residential school system. Norway House was not a welcoming home for Edward. His songs detailed not only his experience of physical, sexual, cultural, and psychological abuse at residential school but the ongoing racism, discrimination, and prejudice he continued to face throughout his life.[2] Florence struggled with how she failed to see what was happening during her time at Norway House. The painful truth is that she never questioned what was happening- she was naïve, believing that the government and church knew best- until she had her own children.[3]

In his song Survivors Voice, Edward recognized far before National Truth and Reconciliation Day, that healing is not just an Indigenous responsibility, calling on all Canadians to heal with him by recognizing their roles and responsibilities. This is exactly what Florence did when she called Edward to apologize. He immediately knew who she was. Edward was taken aback but instead of getting mad at Florence, Edward did something miraculous. He invited her to a healing circle.[4] Together, they shared a peace pipe and went through a smudging ceremony that marked the beginning of a wonderful friendship.[5] They supported each other through the passing of their spouses, and Florence was with Edward when he got sick and passed away in 2010.[6]

Florence and Edward in 2010. Image courtesy of The Globe and Mail

Florence says their friendship has marked a new sense of purpose. She has connected with 16 of her former pupils, not only recognizing her role in the residential school system but helping to put former students in touch with one another, a rich source of comfort for the survivors, as they no longer had to bear their histories alone.[7] She continues to listen to and support her former students, recognizing that it is through these small acts and gestures that we, as a country, can begin to heal.

Florence continues the path toward reconciliation today, spreading Edward's message that reconciliation is a process between individuals, happening on a one-to-one basis. As Canadians, we like to “consider ourselves as benevolent defenders of human rights.”[8] It can be hard to admit that “our modern, liberal democracy has been built upon the destruction of Aboriginal identities and cultural identities.”[9]Today, we call upon you to reflect on your role in reconciliation. Maybe your grandparent taught in a residential/day school, perhaps your homestead is on stolen lands, or you have contributed to stereotyping. The impact of the harmful government policies are still being felt today- which means that you are a part of the reconciliation process. So today, take time to educate yourself, accept responsibility and get involved in the reconciliation process- I know I will be.

To read more about Edward and Florence’s amazing journey through reconciliation check out their jointly authored book Back to the Red Road: A Story of Survival, Redemption and Love.

[1] Florence Kaefer and Edward Gamblin, Back to the Red Road: A Story of Survival, Redemption and Love (Halfmoon Bay: Caitlin Press Inc., 2014) at 75. [2] Ibid, at 208. [3] Richard Wright, “Former Residential School Teacher reunites with one of her students” 1 May 2009, online: Broadview [Broadview]; Former teacher befriends man who was abused at her residential school (2013) online: CBC at 1:36 [CBC]at 3:15. [4] Broadview, Ibid. [5] Ibid. [6] CBC, supra note 3 at 4:00. [7] Broadview, supra note 3. [8] Victoria Freeman, Distant Relations: How My Ancestors Colonized North America (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2000), 449-450. [9] Ibid.

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