Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Warm memories' bond nun, national chief

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SISTER Ida Spence, a tiny 85-year-old nun with arthritic fingers gnarled into near-uselessness, wants to share her most important memories with a

visitor.

She's almost blind now, this former residential school teacher, but she still uses her two photo albums as reminders of her long and full life. She has saved prayer cards, pictures of Pope John Paul and family snapshots. There are fading images of family, priests long dead and a variety of important religious services.

Sister Ida has also kept photos of one of her favourite students, once a little boy at Fort Alexander residential school and now a powerful First Nations leader.

In two pictures, an adult Phil Fontaine sits next to an aged Sister Ida and grins at the camera.

The man who helped design the federal government's $2-billion compensation package for victims of residential schools still visits the Métis woman who was once his teacher at Fort Alexander.

There is grey in even the most seemingly black-and-white situations. In the relationship between Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the elderly nun now living out her days on the infirmary ward of a church residence, there is a flurry of white, black and grey.

"Many of us have warm memories, of course," Fontaine said yesterday of the Oblate sisters, his former teachers. "I enjoy seeing them."

Fontaine was speaking from the Calgary airport, fresh from the federal government's announcement of a compensation package that will see former students receive $10,000 apiece, plus $3,000 for each year spent in the school system.

He qualifies for that payment. Every former student, regardless of whether they suffered abuse, will receive compensation.

Fontaine paused as flight announcements rang out over the line.

"We should never, ever forget there were many, many good people there."

But that has been forgotten. Residential schools have been measured in absolutes, hindsight rendering them all hell holes where children suffered unspeakable horrors. There has been no room for grey in the retelling of the stories of aboriginal children who were taught by nuns and priests.

Years ago, Fontaine disclosed he had been physically and sexually abused at the Fort Alexander school. He said yesterday that his fondness for some of his former teachers doesn't negate the mistreatment of many vulnerable students.

"Our warm memories don't erase what was done to children," he said.

The $2-billion package, which still has to be approved by the courts, is a "fair and just package," Fontaine said.

"Our intention is to put an end to this story," he said. "We're very pleased with the agreement."

The possibility exists that not every native student's experience at a residential school was entirely black. We've already assumed that every priest and nun involved in their education wasn't pure and white.

Could the truth, ultimately, be grey?

Sister Ida, as she sat in her small room in the St. Boniface residence, said she is deeply hurt by all the stories of universal pain inflicted on her charges.

"I was in those places," she said, eyes shut against the light. "I never saw that. Nobody acted that way with me there."

She stops, tells a story about how a young native girl from Eddystone became a nun, and picks up the thread again.

"These were my children and they still are," she said. "I never had so much fun as I did with those children. For me, I loved them like they were my next of kin."

The assumption of complicity in a crime against a generation of aboriginal youth has even reached the sanctity of the church residence she calls home.

"Some of the sisters, they say they know what happened there. I say it is wrong to judge, to say it was like that everywhere, with everyone."

The truth, in black and white, is that Phil Fontaine helped negotiate a $2-billion settlement for every child who attended a residential school.

But the truth, as grey as it might be, is that the same man still visits the nun who educated him and who remembers him fondly today.

And that Sister Ida prays for him still.

Ú lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

PHOTO

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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