Florence Kaefer always thought fondly about the children she taught at Norway House Indian Residential School in the 1950s.
She was shocked and embarrassed to learn, 40 years later, that many children there experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of other school staff.
Reconnecting with a former student, she was vaulted from quiet retirement in British Columbia onto a path that garnered national attention.
Kaefer's memoir fulfils a promise 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.