||Volume 29, Number 3
Gladys we never knew - New learning resource explores history of residential schools through the life of a child
By Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Director
It was a cool misty morning as the yellow school bus carrying Jean Moir's Grade 4/5 students departed Langley Meadows Community School and headed up the Fraser Canyon to the former home and resting place of Gladys Chapman, a girl whose life and death are subjects of deep study for the class.
Through a new BCTF learning resource, the students have learned that Gladys was born June 16, 1918, in Spuzzum, BC, the fourth child of Matilda and Johnny Chapman. Mom was a skilled basket weaver; Dad worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Gladys and her siblings Alexander, Martin, and Maggie were all raised speaking their native language, nlha.kapmhhchEEn. Their parents and Elders passed on the traditional ways of their N'laka'pamux Nation, teaching them how to fish for and dry salmon, how to harvest the bountiful berries and other edible plants, and much more about their land and culture.
The students have also learned that Gladys, like thousands of Indigenous children across Canada, was forcibly taken from her home to a residential school, where nuns and priests tried to “kill the Indian in the child.” At Kamloops Indian Residential School, Gladys suffered from loneliness, hunger, and ultimately, tuberculosis. She died at age 12, and is buried in a small cemetery in Spuzzum.
The field trip was planned to give the children a glimpse of Gladys's community, the extensive span of the wide Fraser River where her family fished for salmon, and to pay their respects by planting a “heart garden” on her grave. En route to Spuzzum, I asked some of the students how they felt when they learned about Aboriginal children being taken from their families to residential schools.
Joe Ferguson, age 9, said, “I thought it was sad. I have a pretty sensitive heart for people, so I felt bad.”
Cohen Meegan, age 10½, said, “I was shocked! That's such cruel treatment. If I was there back then, I'd realize it was wrong.”
What did you think when you learned about the Prime Minister's apology?
“Well, apologizing is always good,” Cohen said, “but it's not enough.”
What would be enough?
“Maybe they have to give the land back. That would be pretty fair. Also, no more residential schools, ever!”
Do you think that learning about the history of residential schools teaches us any lessons for today?
“Oh, yeah, definitely,” Cohen said. “It teaches us to treat everyone respectfully no matter where they come from, their culture, or whatever.”
His pal Joe agreed, saying, “I thought a lot about making things right. I thought that was not possible because I'm just a kid. But now that I think about it, he [pointing to his dad] was a kid once and she [pointing to his teacher] was a kid once, and they can make a difference.”
Arriving at the tiny cemetery, the children were solemn. They took care to be respectful and not tread onto any of the graves. They found Gladys's headstone, and that of her father. They laid a bouquet of sunflowers on her grave and planted the hearts they had made with well wishes for her.
This moving experience is part of a pilot for a 10-lesson learning resource developed by Gail Stromquist, the BCTF's Aboriginal Education co-ordinator, along with her sister Janet, a Langley teacher, and enhanced with stunning artworks by their brother Carl, a renowned artist. For the Stromquist siblings, it's a labour of love and respect for an ancestor they never knew: Gladys Chapman would have been their auntie.
“Gladys's surviving siblings and all of us in the family are really happy that her life story is being told in classrooms,” said Gail. “We see that students identify with Gladys on a personal level, and learning about the injustices she faced helps them speak out when they know something is wrong.”
It's also their way to support the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which urges steps in education for reconciliation, including making “age-appropriate curriculum on residential schools, Treaties, and Aboriginal peoples' historical and contemporary contributions to Canada a mandatory education requirement for Kindergarten to Grade 12 students.”
Langley Meadows teacher Jean Moir is a strong ally in this work, incorporating Indigenous history and ways of knowing into her classroom. Some of her students presented at their school's Reconciliation Ceremony, and others spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation national event in Vancouver about life before, during, and after residential schools.
Jean also encouraged her class to participate in an event sponsored by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation called “Imagine a Canada.” Joe Ferguson was one of the youngest students to be honoured with a prize, which meant Joe and his parents got to travel to Ottawa for an awards ceremony at Rideau Hall, to be greeted by Governor-General David Johnston, and to meet residential school survivors and other students from across the country.
Jean's teachings also inspired another student's family to go on a personal field trip. Last summer Kaden Lee, his sister, and parents were on their way to Nelson when he got the idea to stop in Kamloops and see Gladys's residential school.
Both mother and son spoke of how moved they were to meet Daniel, a survivor who gave them an extensive tour of the big brick institution. From the top floor dormitory, they saw the window where children would sit for hours, waiting and hoping their parents would come and rescue them, or at least visit and bring some food from home.
“Daniel learned to survive by becoming an altar boy,” said mom, Dana Lee. “When the priest was done eating, he took food scraps in a napkin and gave them to the little kids who were hiding under the stairs.”
Kaden recalled: “Daniel's friend saw a nun push one of the kids down the stairs, and the kid died. That nun was the meanest person ever…. The kids were buried in unmarked graves down by the river.”
Dana believes it's time for all Canadians to confront this chapter of our history, and that more people should visit the residential schools so they too can learn the truth.
“What happened to Aboriginal people in Canada is truly horrendous and is such a huge embarrassment to a country that prides itself on being caring, open-minded, and accepting of others,” Jean says. “As I learned about residential schools and the impact they had on generations of Aboriginal people, I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I knew so little about it. As I learned, I wanted to help my Aboriginal students understand what had happened to their ancestors so they could better understand their own lives and hopefully forgive, heal, and have a brighter, more hopeful future.”
“I know that our children are the ones who will make change and reconciliation happen, so it became just as important that my non-Aboriginal students hear the truth and challenge currently held ideas and beliefs. I know my students take home their knowledge and compassion and they are teaching their families and relatives about the true history of Canada and working towards reconciliation. I'm proud and excited to be part of this.”
Teaching for reconciliation resources are available at: bctf.ca/HiddenHistory.
Gladys We Never Knew will be online soon.