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Wednesday August 25, 2010

A pioneer of aboriginal music, he gave voice to his fellow residential school survivors

Cree singer-songwriter became a northern legend as first native singer to make a career from the communities of the Prairie north

Edward Gamblin was known as a northern legend, one of the first native singer-songwriters to make a career playing the hotels and community halls of the Prairie north, giving voice in his country songs to the sorrow and perseverance of a people.

But it was in his last years that Gamblin, a survivor of abuse at an Indian residential school, embarked on a journey of reconciliation for which he will be best remembered.

At his home on the Norway House Cree Nation a few summers ago, Gamblin convened a remarkable healing circle. He sat on a stool at the circle's centre. Around him were loved ones and one outsider, Florence Kaefer, a white woman who taught at the school where Gamblin suffered years of abuse. They burned sweet grass and passed a pipe of peace, and then Gamblin rose to his feet. He spoke to the four directions in Cree.

Kaefer, recalling the moment, didn't know what had been said. But if there is any phrase by which Gamblin is known, it's a line from his song Survivor's Voice: Canada, heal with me.

Gamblin died in Winnipeg on July 27 at the age of 62.

He was born at Cross Lake, Man., in May, 1948. His early years were tumultuous. His parents struggled with addiction to alcohol, and young Edward and his mother once had to flee when his father pursued them with an axe.

At five, Gamblin was caught up in the sweep that took native children from their families and placed them in residential schools far from home. The stated aim of the schools was to "kill the Indian in the child."

Gamblin was taken to Norway House. He remembered the school as the most imposing structure he had ever seen. Like other residential school students, his hair was cut and he was covered in delousing powder.

He was much smaller than the other boys, recalled Kaefer, his former teacher. The school-issued clothes were too big for him, so his grey pants had to be rolled and a rope tied around his waist to hold them up.

That first year, Gamblin stole the show at the school concert. The teachers dressed him up as their vision of a little Indian boy with paint on his chest, cardboard feathers in his hair and a crepe paper fringe on his pant leg. Gamblin strode out on stage and "whooped and hollered and brought the house down," Kaefer said.

"He was a performer and an extrovert from the beginning," she added.

That was among the happier memories. In the liner notes to one of his albums, Gamblin described himself as an unwilling captive of the residential school system for 11 years.

Early on, he was repeatedly dragged from his bed and forced to recite the Lord's Prayer in his halting English, taking a beating for every error. Later, he inadvertently stumbled upon two members of staff having sex. The male staff member repeatedly struck Gamblin's wrists, where the wounds would be covered by his sleeves. But Gamblin was in such pain that his friends had to feed him for several days.

Gamblin was also sexually abused by members of staff.

He never spoke out, but developed strategies to limit his pain. He would often linger after class if a teacher would let him. He remembered one in particular, his Grade 1 teacher - Miss Finson - who let him play the piano after school.

"I believe she suspected abuses were happening," Gamblin wrote. "I used to look forward to going to the classroom."

In an interview with the United Church Observer, Gamblin said he and his classmates differentiated between the good teachers and the bad, and said students tried to protect the good teachers by concealing their pain.

"When someone did speak up for us, they were shipped away for threatening to expose what was going on," he said. "That's why we kept quiet. We didn't want to lose them."

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