Marie Strapp, 90, of Grand Bend, looks at a photo she took of Geraldine Robertson at the former Mount Elgin Indian Industrial School in Muncey, Ont. Strapp, who worked at the residential school, recently reconnected with Robertson who is now an Aamjiwnaang First Nation elder who shares her story as a residential school survivor. Lynda Hillman-Rapley/Postmedia Network
Marie Strapp could never forget little Geraldine.
Every time the Grand Bend woman opened her photo album for the next seven decades she was reminded of the 10-year-old girl she had met while working at Mount Elgin Indian Industrial School in Muncey, Ont.
In a black-and-white photograph, Geraldine – who would spend a year at the Muncey residential school – is getting hugged by another girl. A shy smile is on her face and she’s staring off into the distance.
That image is one of the few photographs Geraldine Robertson – now an Aamjiwnaang First Nation elder – has of her childhood, and she has it now thanks to an unlikely reconciliation of sorts.
Strapp – Mount Elgin’s former camera-toting girls’ supervisor – and Robertson – a residential school survivor – recently reconnected more than seven decades after their paths crossed at Mount Elgin Indian Industrial School.
The pair – Strapp, now 90, and Robertson, 81 – have now shared lunches, swapped stories and even met extended family.
“We email almost every two to three days, so I’m just so glad we were able to meet each other,” Strapp said.
And while for outsiders it might seem like an awkward reunion – Strapp a staffer in a residential school and Robertson a child who was traumatized by that very school system – Strapp said it hasn’t been uncomfortable at all because both of the women recall positive experiences at the school.
Robertson – who would later be exposed to bullying and struggle with hunger at Brantford’s Mohawk Institute – has fond memories of her time at Mount Elgin.
Even Strapp – who spent a year working at the school – cannot recall witnessing any abuse during her time at Mount Elgin. She was also unaware of any abuse happening at other residential schools at the time.
“Knowing what I did then, I had no idea what the rest of the schools had been doing,” Strapp said. “I had no idea what horrors had been like when (Geraldine) went to Mohawk.”
Strapp has since learned in detail what Robertson experienced at Mohawk Institute because the Aamjiwnaang elder has shared her story across Canada, including at Grand Bend’s Huron Shores United Church.
Strapp is part of that church’s right relations working group.
“When I think about (the residential school system) now, I think, ‘If I had known then what I know now, it’d be a whole different story,’ but in those days, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do,” said Strapp, who was just 18 when she started working at Mount Elgin.
But Strapp’s eyes have been opened thanks in part to residential school survivors, like Robertson, sharing their stories.
“I’m so proud of Geraldine for all she’s been doing,” Strapp said. “She’s an amazing woman. I just love her.”
Strapp and the rest of Huron Shores’ right relations working group recently nominated Robertson for the Order of Ontario – the province’s highest honour bestowed on individuals who show excellence and achievement – for her work raising awareness about the residential school system.
Robertson will be participating in Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s first-ever Indigenous Educators’ Symposium set for May 4 and 5.
The two-day symposium will feature guest speakers like Minneapolis-based Indigenous language specialist James Vukelich and Mississauga-based Indigenous artist Eddy Robinson.
Administrators and teachers with the Lambton Kent District School Board have been invited to the symposium.
“Our goal is to provide an opportunity for discussion about reconciliation through education,” said Vicki Ware, education coordinator with Aamjiwnaang First Nation.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released in its final report what it called 94 “calls to action” – recommended improvements to publicly-funded systems like health care and education to redress the legacy of residential schools and advance the process of reconciliation.
Ware said Aamjiwnaang First Nation wants to support the local school board in implementing some of those calls to action.
“(The symposium is) also an opportunity for us to get together to talk about some of the changes that are going to be happening in education as we move forward with self-government with the Anishinabek Education System,” Ware added.
The recently-ratified deal – between members of the Union of Ontario Indians, the Government of Canada and Ontario’s Ministry of Education – allows First Nation communities to have greater control over the education of their children.
“What will happen is the Anishinabek Education System will strengthen First Nations communities but also provide an opportunity for the provincial schools,” Ware said. “The pedagogy will be more culturally relevant and tailored to Indigenous learners, so that’s what we hope the system will bring to the Lambton Kent District School Board…”
The Indigenous Educators’ Symposium is planned for the Aamjiwnaang Maawn Doosh Gamig Community and Youth Centre May 4 and 5. For more information about the event, email Aamjiwnaang special projects administrator Marina Plain at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 519-336-8410.