23768John Furlong lawsuit highlights his past with the Frontier Apostles
- Dec 1, 2012John Furlong lawsuit highlights his past with the Frontier Apostles
The accusations behind John Furlong's libel suit date back to a different time and place
By Lori Culbert and Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun
November 30, 2012 11:23 PM
Bishop Fergus O'Grady at his consecration in 1956. Sun Files Bishop Fergus O'Grady at his consecration in 1956. Sun Files
BURNS LAKE -Ronnie Lowrey was 21 years old in 1969 when she left behind her family in Ireland to move to Prince George, one of 4,000 members of a "peace corps" used by a charismatic bishop to expand Catholic schooling across northern B.C.
On the airplane with Lowrey were 20 other young people from Ireland, England and Scotland who came to volunteer in 14 Catholic schools in "frontier" towns, stretching from Prince Rupert to Dawson Creek. They were part of a large group dubbed the Frontier Apostles.
Among those arriving from Ireland that summer was John Furlong, who would become a household name as the head of the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Olympics but whose past as a Frontier Apostle only emerged two months ago.
This period of Furlong's life - and of B.C.'s past - fell under the spotlight in September when the Georgia Straight reported eight former native students allege Furlong hurt them while he was a 19-year-old gym teacher in Burns Lake in 1969 and 1970.
This week, Furlong launched a civil suit against the newspaper and reporter Laura Robinson, alleging she wrote the story as part of a campaign to discredit him and that she ignored warnings from Furlong's lawyer that he would sue if she published anything defamatory.
"During his time as a teacher, the plaintiff (Furlong) never engaged in abuse of his students, nor did the plaintiff engage in bullying or racial taunting," says the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in B.C. Supreme Court.
"Robinson maliciously intended to injure the plaintiff's reputation and cause the plaintiff harm."
The Georgia Straight article, which was filed in court by Furlong's lawyer as part of his lawsuit, quotes one former Furlong student who alleges he was hit with a stick, and on another occasion punched very hard.
Shortly after the article was published, Furlong issued two statements denying the accusations, saying he "categorically deny(s) absolutely any wrongdoing."
The RCMP is investigating allegations involving Furlong but won't provide any details.
Furlong's lawsuit claims the RCMP investigated a report from Robinson about one of the former students and found "inconsistencies."
When contacted this week, Robinson said she could not comment because she had not seen the lawsuit yet.
Over several weeks earlier this fall, The Sun spoke with more than a dozen people associated with the school or the Frontier Apostles in the 1960s and 1970s.
They include five former native students of Furlong's, whose recollections of him range from strict to harsh; four additional students who are fond of the bishop who created the schools but critical of their time in his classrooms; three former Frontier Apostles, who deny witnessing violence in the schools, and insist the focus was to integrate native and white students; and a number of people who recall Furlong as a nice, young gym teacher.
Furlong would not speak to The Sun about his first trip to Canada in 1969 because of the court action over the Georgia Straight article, his lawyer Marvin Storrow said in an email.
Furlong arrived in B.C. at a time when corporal punishment was common in many schools, subjecting children to the strap or the back of the hand for perceived infractions.
And for some native children in northern B.C. in the 1960s and '70s, they would be taught by young, foreign teachers who had little experience with First Nations culture.
The question at the heart of this controversy may be whether those children received a good education and a level of discipline that was commonplace for the time, or rather were subjected to disrespect and unduly severe punishment.
Furlong arrived in Canada the same summer as Lowrey, and may have been on the same plane; all she can remember is sitting with 20 nameless strangers who later became her friends. What she vividly recalls is the culture shock of leaving Dublin, a city swept up in the worldwide economic boom and the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and landing in Prince George, which was also growing but had just 30,000 residents in 1969.
"I felt like I had stepped into a sort of Western movie: the wide main street and the flat-topped roofs to the stores," Lowrey said in an interview from her Ontario home.
"It was really quite radically different. And of course the smell of the paper mills was the first thing to hit me when I got off the plane."
Lowrey, Furlong and thousands of other young Catholics from around the globe, including Western Europe, the United States, the Philippines and Japan, came to B.C. to work for free for the larger-than-life and highly revered Bishop Fergus O'Grady.
Shortly after he was consecrated in 1956 as the top Catholic in northern B.C., O'Grady was nicknamed the Bulldozer Bishop because he cleared tracts of bushland and forest to build Catholic schools in the north. On occasion, he drove the bulldozers himself.
The Catholic Church and its members donated thousands of dollars and volunteer hours to construct the buildings. Once the schools were completed by the mid-1960s, thousands more volunteers, like Furlong, came to teach, receiving only $25 a month plus room and board.
Most of the bishop's schools were not residential: the children attended classes during the day and went home to their parents at night. And they were open to all local children, as it was O'Grady's vision to "integrate" white students and youngsters from the local native bands.
"The Indians of the diocese, especially, needed help and I thought education was the solution to their problems, so that is why I concentrated on building schools," O'Grady said in a 1968 interview with The Vancouver Sun.
That O'Grady was well-liked and well-intentioned is almost universally accepted, including by many band leaders and former native students.
But his goal of integration appears to have failed, as many former native students say they never felt equal to white children and complain of mistreatment by some of the nuns and volunteer teachers.
Some academics argue native students' experiences at the Catholic day schools were not dissimilar to the assimilation that was the focus of B.C.'s notorious residential schools.
"Irish and English teachers could do little to assist in a process of cross-cultural reflection or sensitivity - the purported aims of integrated education," Kevin Beliveau wrote in his 1992 master's thesis, Belief, Backbone and Bulldozers: Fergus O'Grady's Vision of Catholic, 'Integrated' Education in Northern British Columbia.
Beliveau, who today is a campus minister at Vancouver College, an all-boys Catholic grade school, attended Prince George College, the high school built by O'Grady.
Beliveau wrote in his 115-page thesis that while he respects his former teachers and admired O'Grady, he is conflicted by the fact he learned little about aboriginal culture in his "integrated" classrooms.
"Unlike Catholic education aimed at dominant society, Catholic missionary education was aimed at 'converting and civilizing' the Aboriginal people," he wrote.
Corporal punishment was legal in B.C. schools until 1973, and it was not unusual before that time for students to be physically disciplined by teachers or principals. One of the questions now being asked is whether some native students at O'Grady's day schools were subjected to overly harsh treatment, even by the standards of the day.
A range of recollections
Ryan Tibbetts attended Immaculata, the Catholic elementary school in Burns Lake, in the 1960s. He said Furlong was "strict" but he was never harmed by the gym teacher.
However, Tibbetts describes a "culture of violence" at the school. During an interview at his Burns Lake home, he said native students who did not speak English were strapped by the nuns if they couldn't understand what was being said to them.
A former Burns Lake Indian Band councillor, Tibbetts said he didn't know if anyone in First Nations leadership at the time spoke out against abuse at Immaculata, but noted he wasn't sure if that was "allowed or even thought about" then. Such complaints might have been considered tantamount to "questioning God's authority."
When Henry Michell was a boy growing up in Burns Lake, he was also required to attend Immaculata. It was the 1960s, and all aboriginal children from the surrounding area, including from his Babine Lake Nation, were sent there because their parents had been forced to go to a religious school and - flawed as their experiences might have been - that was all they knew.
"Most of our parents went to mass - we had no choice but to attend Immaculata," Michell said in an interview.
Michell, like other former students, claimed it was not a pleasant experience. He can remember students being physically harmed for minor infractions, such as running in the hall.
The nuns, he alleged, would deliver 10 to 20 straps across the palms of your hands.
"When you are mentally and emotionally abused, it stays with you. You hope to work towards healing," said Michell, who helped to organize an awareness walk in northern B.C. in 2006 for "survivors" of residential and day schools.
Mary Taschner, however, recalls efforts to be inclusive and helpful to the native students at St. Joseph's elementary school in Vanderhoof, where she volunteered as a primary teacher for three years.
She joined the Frontier Apostles in 1971, at the age of 25, moving to B.C. from Washington state, where she had been working as a teacher.
She said that Mary John, a respected community leader, taught the Carrier language at St. Joseph's; volunteers from the community helped native children with English reading and grammar; and some Frontier Apostles visited the native students' parents to personally deliver report cards.
"The homes when we went to visit were very sparse," Taschner said, adding there appeared to be few books. "So, we read a lot (in class). I used to sit in this low chair, and one girl would rub my legs ... You just felt very close to the kids."
Taschner, whose husband Robert was also a volunteer Frontier Apostle at another O'Grady school in the 1970s, doesn't remember corporal punishment at St. Joseph's.
"I don't remember the strap," she said in an interview from her Prince George home. "I don't remember physical discipline."
But Beverly Abraham alleged she was treated harshly by Furlong while he was her gym teacher at Immaculata in Burns Lake. She is one of eight former Furlong students from whom the Georgia Straight said it obtained signed affidavits.
Abraham complained that if she was slow running laps around the playground, she would have to do pushups in the gym, where Furlong would allegedly put his "big foot" on her back. She repeated the same allegations in an interview with The Sun.
Ronnie Alec, a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s at Immaculata, also signed an affidavit for the Georgia Straight. Alec, who recalled being on the receiving end of nasty punishments at the school, alleged Furlong kicked him from behind or slapped him on the head if he wasn't fast enough in gym class.
In the lawsuit filed against the Georgia Straight earlier this week, Furlong said the allegations made against him, including those of Abraham and Alec, were untrue.
In an interview with The Sun, Alec recalled being punished by other adults at the school, including being strapped in the boiler room and locked outside in freezing temperatures if he was late for class.
"It hurts when you bring (memories) back. It brings back the pain and anger," he said.
Those memories came back, Alec said, when he saw Furlong on TV in 2010 as the face of the Vancouver Olympics.
Furlong's best-selling biography talks about when he immigrated to Canada in 1974, but does not mention teaching in Burns Lake and Prince George from 1969 to 1972, when he returned to Ireland with his wife Margaret - another Frontier Apostle whom he married while in B.C.
In the lawsuit, Furlong says his book was about his life only as it related to his role in the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and that his volunteer service at Immaculata School had no part in that story.
A 'visionary program'
Lowrey, the former Frontier Apostle from Ireland, remembers Furlong in Burns Lake as "a delightful young man."
Although she is no longer a practising Catholic, she described the Frontier Apostles movement as a "marvellous, visionary program" because it predated John F. Kennedy's peace corps movement.
But she also acknowledged such a large volunteer organization could not be perfect.
Without speaking directly about Furlong, Lowrey said most students educated in Ireland in the 1960s were the product of a school system run by often-uncompassionate Christian brothers and nuns.
"They were equally brutal to us. I have no fond memories of being taught by the religious people," she said. "They were devoid of the milk of human kindness in their veins."
That background could have influenced how some Irish Frontier Apostles interacted with their students, she said, but wouldn't necessarily have meant the volunteers were "bad at the core."
Before she left Ireland in 1969, Lowrey had worked as a secretary in Dublin. When she came as a volunteer to Prince George it was not to teach, but to work in the Frontier Apostle recruitment office.
She said Furlong was an anomaly because at age 19 he was younger than most of the Frontier Apostles selected to teach. However, Lowrey said he was likely a good athlete and that the requirements for gym teachers might have been viewed differently then.
During her time in the recruitment office, from 1969 to 1971, there were more volunteers than positions to fill, recalled Lowrey, who believes the vast majority of Frontier Apostles were there with good intentions.
But, speaking generally and not about anyone in particular, she said a small number of the 4,000 volunteers likely shouldn't have been accepted and that their screening process could have been "tighter."
Struggles to adjust
Bill Beatty grew up in a white family in Burns Lake, where his mother taught at the public school and his sister Louise attended Immaculata. Beatty and his mother volunteered to pick up several of the Frontier Apostles from the Prince George airport in 1969, and that is when he first met Furlong, who became a friend.
He said many of the young volunteers had "significant adjustments" getting used to their new lives in northern B.C. towns, where the culture was different from Europe and many of the residents - both native and white - struggled with alcohol and the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
And this was unfolding during the counterculture of the late 1960s, when young people were challenging societal norms about race, sex, women's rights and authority figures.
"That was a time of dramatic social change for young people and John came into it as an idealistic, impressionable 19-year-old," said Beatty, an adjunct professor at Trinity Western University.
Beatty never had Furlong as a teacher but played basketball with him and witnessed him interacting with students at Immaculata. Furlong "valued performance" when he was coaching, he said, but not to the extent that he would be tough on the students.
While Beatty said he saw conflict between the aboriginal and white communities in Burns Lake, he insisted Furlong was never a part of that.
The volunteers who arrived in 1969/70 were given an orientation program that stressed treating native students with respect, said Lowrey, the former Frontier Apostle. "It emphasized again and again that the most important thing was to give back a sense of importance to the people."
Prince George College, she added, held First Nations celebrations, such as Haida dancing, at a time when society was often critical of native people.
Lowrey was not aware of students being strapped at Prince George College and - although she "has no time" for the Catholic Church today - she does not believe O'Grady would have condoned abuse if he heard about such behaviour.
"I'm not speaking out of defence for the Catholic Church when I say: Everything that Bishop O'Grady did came from a heart of goodness," she said.
"He had a fabulous vision of improving life for native students so that they wouldn't have to drop out of high school, so they could be equipped to deal with the world."
Before becoming bishop of the Prince George diocese in 1956, O'Grady, a member of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate order, spent several years working at residential schools in Mission, Williams Lake and Kamloops.
O'Grady, though, "seemed to ignore prevailing Oblate sentiment" to continue operating residential schools, Beliveau's thesis said, because "three decades of residential school administration inclined him to support (their) closure."
The federal government has announced a compensation program for residential school survivors, many of whom suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But some native students who attended day schools allege they were subjected to similar abuse and want financial payouts, too.
Jim Miller, a University of Saskatchewan history professor, does not think when the key parties hammered out the residential school compensation agreement that much thought was given to the day schools.
"I think in terms of denigration of indigenous culture and those sorts of problems, (as well as) harsh discipline, there wouldn't have been a great difference between a day school and a residential school. The difference comes in after classroom hours, when the residential student is still there subject to the supervision of the staff," said Miller, an expert on the relations between native people and Canadian settlers.
A complicated history
To describe the history of the day schools built by O'Grady in northern B.C. as complicated would be an understatement. While native students complain about some nuns and volunteer teachers, many also have fond memories of other staff.
Nadleh Whut'en First Nation member Larry Nooski can recall Furlong being a tough gym teacher in the 1960s. When he went to Prince George College high school, he said, he dropped gym and took sewing instead to avoid having Furlong as his teacher again.
However, Nooski's experiences at the Catholic schools were not entirely negative.
"The nuns, as well as the priests, there were some that gained our respect. We did like them. Some we couldn't have the time for them or any use for them," said Nooski, who now lives in Sechelt. "There are a lot of good Frontier Apostles."
However, Ann Tibbetts, who attended Immaculata in the 1970s after Furlong left, alleges volunteer teachers threw rubber balls and chalk at her, and strapped her. She complained she was stabbed in the face with a pen and her long braid was cut off by other students.
And she told The Sun the Frontier Apostles and the principal ignored her complaints.
Tibbetts, though, spoke glowingly about the man who built Immaculata, calling O'Grady "warm, bubbly, happy, always laughing."
When O'Grady died in 1998, Taschner's husband Robert, who went on to become a florist, made the flowers for the casket. The bishop was buried in a native buckskin vestment, and many First Nations people came to his funeral in Prince George, she recalled.
"The native people really loved him," she said. "He was very personable."
O'Grady had created an unusual program, convincing 4,000 mainly young people to leave their home countries and come to much smaller communities in northern B.C., where some built schools, others drove buses and worked as janitors, and still more were teachers or cafeteria staff. Another element of this group was the so-called bread-winner apostles, such as nurses, secretaries and bank clerks, who donated their salaries to O'Grady to fund these schools.
Taschner's parents drove her from their home in the Seattle suburb of Renton to the school in Vanderhoof where she taught for three years. She stayed with four other teachers in a double-wide trailer with five bedrooms and a common living room. They had breakfast in the trailer, but lunch and dinner at the school cafeteria.
The $25-per-month stipend jumped to $50 in the second year of volunteering.
According to the literature about Frontier Apostles, there were many who met a future spouse while with the program.
Beatty, the friend who picked Furlong up from the airport in 1969, also gave a ride to a female Frontier Apostle named Margaret, who later became Furlong's first wife and the mother of his two children. Beatty attended their wedding.
"Margaret was lovely. Both, of course, (were) quite young when they married," he said.
The Frontier Apostle program started to shrink in 1977 when the provincial government began providing operational funding to independent schools, which allowed Catholic schools to hire paid teachers.
Some of O'Grady's schools are no longer open today due to declining student populations.
Nearly 50 years ago, Wilf Adam was forced to leave the public school on his reserve to attend Immaculata. He was in Grade 6 and, although he doesn't have fond memories of the school, he said it wasn't excessively violent.
"They treated (native students) like everybody else. If we didn't behave, we got strapped. I guess it was normal back then," said Adam, who today is chief of the Lake Babine Nation.
"I remember Furlong. He taught physical education in Immaculata. He was like a tough sergeant. He was very forceful.... I know we talked about it amongst ourselves, but at those times if you went to the principal they wouldn't take the student's side."
Adam, who was athletic, did not get hit and said he knows some former students who liked Furlong.
This story, he said, has divided the community. Adam issued a statement on behalf of the Lake Babine Nation urging the RCMP to do a thorough investigation into the Furlong allegations, so this chapter of Burns Lake history can be closed.
"I've talked to many people, and some were dismayed that this has happened. And some are dismayed that it is coming out now and when is it going to stop," Adam said.
"I hope the RCMP (get to the bottom of these questions) because if they don't, it is just going to get worse."
Ann Tibbets and her partner Francis Holland jr, who both attended O'Grady's schools. Photo by Gordon Hoekstra
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