I never learned how to be a mum’

Published June 25, 2012

The damage inflicted by residential schools remains with survivors, and their parents, children and grandchildren. Photo: Clive Watkins/Shutterstock.com

One Mother’s Day, Shirley Gamble’s children gave her a gift. "What good have I ever done as a mother to deserve this?" she asked them, weeping. As a young First Nation child in Manitoba, English-speaking Gamble had been wrested from her parents and sent to a Roman Catholic residential school, where she was taught by French-speaking nuns." I was never around my own parents, so I never learned how to be a mum," she said tearfully at the recent hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Saskatoon.

In her testimony, the regal-looking woman, her hair in a French braid, admitted that she had put her three children through some bad times. After three children from different fathers, she completed a degree in education at the University of Brandon, became a teacher and later went into child welfare work and foster parenting. Her second son is a corrections officer.

Separated from her two sisters at the school, she cried incessantly. The nuns scolded her for being a bad girl and eventually sequestered her in a broom closet room adjacent to their dining room. "They would shove my food under the door like I was a dog," Gamble told the hearing. "Sometimes they would let me out to eat with them but since they were all dressed in black, I wasn’t sure if they were going to eat me up, too!" When she couldn’t eat, they thrust her back in the closet.

The tiny room was her home from September until just before Christmas. One day, she heard the sound of singing and jingling bells. "It reminded me how my dad would takes the bells off the horse’s harness and put them over the door so they would jingle when it opened," said Gamble. "I thought Santa Claus was coming and I wanted to see him."

Suddenly, the sisters removed her from the closet, dressed her up nicely and marched by the arms into the room where the pupils’ Christmas concert was in progress. Surprised to see her two sisters, she screamed and started to cry. "I had thought they were dead or eaten and that the nuns would do the same to me," Gable recalled.

For this outburst, the sisters grabbed her and locked her up in the closet again until her father came to get her for Christmas.

In the cold little room, she developed chills and a fever and her vision failed. "My eyes hurt so much I couldn’t open them. I remember lying on the floor moaning and calling for someone to come." Taken to the infirmary, she lay in a delirium. Finally able to open her eyes, she saw, standing at the foot of the bed, a man in a white gown, his hair plaited in a long white braid. "He smiled at me and to this day, I believe that man was God or his son, Jesus," Gamble said.

The next thing she knew, her dad was at her side and took her home for the holidays.

Gamble deeply regrets that her parents were not with her to guide her in developing parenting skills. "I was always afraid of losing my kids because I was such a bad mother," Gamble said.

But on that Mother’s Day, her kids hugged her and forgave her. "They said they would remember just the good times, not the bad times. But I could only remember the bad times."

Gamble said the intergenerational damage inflicted on her family has not subsided. The scars mark her generation and the next. "I have 10 siblings. Five went to residential school and five stayed home. The ones who stayed home are more wholesome and natural."

Now retired, Gamble contemplates life as she does her intricate beadwork at home. "I understand that it is very important to carry on living and not harbour any of the old thoughts," she said.


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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