Lawrence Flett, a lay student at the William Winter school, wants to broaden his knowledge of the church.
Kingfisher Lake, Ont.
Lawrence Flett, a first-time student at the William Winter school’s summer session, has seen the worst and the best that Christianity has to offer.
Mr. Flett, 52, a tall, cheerful man who wears his black hair in a long braid, is people’s warden and a lay reader at St. Andrew’s church in Gillam, Man., near the Fox Lake Cree Nation at Bird, Man.
In an interview under the trees at Kingfisher Lake, outside the classroom building, Mr. Flett said he was at William Winter to increase his knowledge of the Bible and the church.
When he was five, his grandfather insisted he go to school and he was sent to the Gordon Indian Residential School near Punnichy, Sask. from 1959 to 1967. “I can remember having fun together as kids, but it was very lonely. Always, the atmosphere was very strict, almost like the military,” said Mr. Flett.
In recent years, the Gordon school has become notorious as dozens of former students sued the federal government and the church for sexual and physical abuse suffered behind its doors. William Starr, a former administrator of the school, served time in prison for sexually abusing boys from 1968 to 1984.
Mr. Flett said he experienced several kinds of abuse. “There was the hunger. They fed us just enough. I remember getting punished. We were made to kneel on broomsticks. One kid got a slap in the back of the head and fell off the broomstick,” he said. “I ran away from the school four times and got strapped for it.”
Faith, at first, was confusing. “When we were going to church, we weren’t given an explanation at all – who God was and Jesus was. We were told the names, but a lot of the stuff was in the King James version (of the Bible) and being six, seven years old, it was hard to understand those words and they became meaningless after a while,” he said.
As an adult, Mr. Flett battled his demons. “I partied, smoked, drank, got into fights, didn’t care about anyone except myself. I had a family, but I didn’t have any experience in bringing up children. I saw the yelling, the drinking and I did that too,” he said. The father of five worked as a miner in Manitoba for 18 years.
“In my late 30s, I started to think there had to be more to life than what I was doing,” he said. “What was the meaning of my life? I got a Bible. I would go to the odd church service, but I still drank.” Five years ago, in Winnipeg, his marriage breakup hit him hard: “I wanted to give up, but there was something inside me, a spark. I turned to God and asked for help at the lowest point of my life. I met some people who taught me more about the Bible and how it had affected them. I also went to the traditional side of our life, the drums, the pipe,” he recalled.
Today, Mr. Flett is a leader in his community, working as a band councillor. He took vacation time to attend the William Winter school. Rev. Joel Bighead’s classes on preaching particularly interested him, since he would like to preach in his capacity as lay reader and, as band councillor, he is called upon to speak in public.
In mid-life, faith is giving Mr. Flett strength, through the same denomination that grieved him as a child. “I had that mentality at one time – blaming the church for everything, until I came to understand the Bible more. It wasn’t the church itself that did the wrongs; it was the people, combined with the government and administration,” he said.
Today, his Christianity and his identity as a native man have merged. “Our traditional beliefs about the creator and God are one and the same. The methods of worship are different, like the denominations have different ways. Same with aboriginal culture. I believe totally that Jesus died for our sins. That makes me feel very special. I am one of God’s children,” he said.