Definition of abuse in school substantially different today

"I had a gym teacher who whacked kids duffs with running shoes. We thought he was kind of weird – and also funny. No one complained."

The story about John Furlong and his time in Burns Lakes more than 40 years is strange on a number of levels.

A Vancouver weekly newspaper, the Georgia Straight, says that the former Vancouver Olympic Committee chief has a secret past. As an 18-year-old in 1969, fresh from a Catholic school in Ireland, he is accused of being less than warm and supportive of First Nations students at a missionary school where he volunteered for a year as a gym teacher.

Given the outstanding reputation Furlong built up as Vanoc chief, the story might have been largely ignored since many media outlets these days don’t need lawsuits to add to their financial woes.

But, when the story broke last week, Furlong held a news conference to deny that any of the reported incidents happened and announce he is suing over the article, thus making it a big story coast to coast. The reporter now says she intends to counter sue over his comments about her and the story.

The physical and sexual abuse of First Nations students and other children at church-run institutions is a well-documented fact that many of Canada’s churches are still trying to atone and pay for, and which still haunts many victims and bands decades later.

But other, less-heinous behaviours by teachers and coaches that would lead to dismissal, lawsuits and criminal charges today were common in classrooms and on the playing fields of Canada in the 1960s.

Students were strapped for misbehaving. Some teachers slapped and shoved students, threw chalk, blackboard brushes and books at them, and screamed at the top of their lungs.

I had a gym teacher who whacked kids duffs with running shoes. We thought he was kind of weird – and also funny. No one complained.

My bantam community team football coach yelled at us for the entire 1969 season. He belittled our ethnic heritages, questioned our sexuality, threw stuff, cuffed and cursed us and made players run interminable laps in full gear amid the stifling August heat.

We laughed and called him Crazy Eddie. My father thought playing football and the coach were equally mad but the rest of the parents cheered as we rolled over opponents on the way to the championship.

That kind of behaviour is unthinkable today. It would result in summary dismissal, lawsuits, government probes and perhaps criminal charges. But in that time and place, Eddie was a hero.

Not all heroic reputations live on forever. We reinterpret history based on newly discovered facts and shifting perceptions.

But we have to judge actions within their contexts.

Furlong was 18, untrained, in a foreign land and a community completely alien to him.

He is accused not of committing crimes, but what amounts to failing to rise above his times and circumstances. As such I don’t see how Furlong has much of a case for damage to his reputation, regardless of the veracity of the story.

Given the number of sworn affidavits that the Georgia Straight says it has to back up its story, Furlong will presumably have to go after the newspaper’s First Nations witnesses if he persists in seeking redress through the courts. That won’t be an endearing sight to many.

Sometimes individuals must speak and the media has a duty to report. Other times, silence fills a space or heals wounds as well as anything else can, but not saying anything seems to be an option these days.

••••

Trail’s reputation has been impinged once again based on a much sparser examination of the facts. The latest edition of the usually-reliable Moon Handbook series of travel guides contains some out-dated digs at the smelter city.

Based on his account, he author doesn’t appear to have visited the area in the past 15 years, if ever. He still thinks the largest employer in Trail is the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company, Cominco or Teck Cominco, all of which appear in the brief entry on our city.

Whatever the name, the firm is referred to as “one of the world’s largest mining companies”, which is far from the case. The Trail Operations’ stacks are described as “belching smoke 24 hours a day,” which is obviously even further off the mark.

The author refers to “poor Trail” and predicts “it is probable that neither your first of subsequent impression of Trail will be positive.”

A friend sent the author an email asking him when he last visited and inviting him to lunch and a personal tour should he return, but has not received a reply.

That seems like a sensible tone in terms of a response to the guide’s characterization of Trail.

The city may not be the Florence of the Kootenays, but it has still come a long way from its soot and slag days of the last century.

Raymond Masleck is a retired Trail Times reporter.

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