As appeared in the Lanark Era (Sep 2008)
Lanark teacher was thwarted in her attempt to expose the injustices of Canada’s residential school system
“Remembered Heroes” by Donna Sinclair is reprinted with permission from the United Church Observer, July/August 2000. It was first published in the Lanark Era, Sept. 5, 2000, and is reprinted again this year, as the federal government is now offering compensation to people who were forced to attend these schools.
By Donna Sinclair
Lucy Affleck was 44 years old when she took up a teaching position at Round Lake Indian Residential School near Stockholm, Sask. It was 1929. That was the year she became a hero of the United Church, although few people knew it at the time.
She was – as a distant relative, United Church minister Rev. George Affleck described her years later – “a remarkable person, an intellectual, totally honest in her thinking.”
That honesty led her to write a passionate, five-page confidential letter to the Superintendent of Home Missions, Dr. Alfred Barner, in Toronto after she had been at Round Lake only a few months.
Ms. Affleck was appalled at the living conditions of the children: small children (from tuberculosis-wracked communities) shivering in a chilly hallway, lined up in their nighties to receive cough medicine; no heating fires in the building, “except for the day the inspector visited” during a wet and windy autumn; donated quilts sold instead of used; boys with “no underwear of any kind”; girls – all 52 of them – lined up to wash in two basins still containing the water they had used the night before.
Ms. Affleck deplored the gap between the Christian values the school proclaimed, and reality: the “prayers are meaningless … all the religious knowledge these little Indians get is a matter for form only. Of a Gospel of love and light they hear nothing.”
Her letter to Dr. Barner was dated Oct. 3. Steps would be taken to remedy the situation, he replied. But just over a month later, Ms. Affleck wrote again to say she had been called to the principal’s office. “Your cheque is there on the desk; the truck will take you to Whitewood tomorrow,” the principal had said.
She asked if there was any explanation.
“None, except the church demands the immediate dismissal of anyone disloyal to the staff.”
When she protested that she had reported “only conditions that should not exist and to the proper authorities,” he said, “You may take either a morning or an afternoon train.”
Ms. Affleck belonged to a select group of women who, at different times and place, paid a price for trying to bring a gentler vision to the schools: Elizabeth Shaw, for example, fired from the school in Port Simpson, B.C., for a letter of protest she wrote in 1898; Ilma Dunn, fired from Port Simpson 32 years later for playing basketball with native students and visiting in their homes.
For her part, Ms. Affleck was philosophical. “I was quite the only one who could afford to lose her job over the affair,” she said later.
She returned to her family home in Lanark, Ont. remaining there until she died in 1949, living simply, writing widely-printed editorials for The Lanark Era.
“Every time I was home, it was a treat to talk with her,” George Affleck says, “She was interested in everything going. Especially theological discussions. Especially about how the Bible related to life today.”
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