By Carol Christian
The words fiery and inspirational have been used to describe Lina Gallup, a 90-year-old survivor who has spent most of her adult life helping others heal.
She believes the horrors of residential school not only gave her the strength to overcome adversity, but also drove her desire and commitment to help others.
A most notable accomplishment in her life was when she opened the first exclusively Indigenous group home in Canada, the Nekinan Home for Aboriginal Youth, in 1982. There she nurtured children who had been removed from their families and cultures through the foster care system. She encouraged them, guided them and allowed them a place to heal so that they could become successful in their lives with their culture as their foundation.
“I wanted to make a better life for native kids that were in care. There were so many of them.”
An estimated 2,000 youth passed through those doors where they knew love, caring and support, and learned traditional ways.
Gallup was recently celebrated during Fort McKay Treaty Days as she is currently the oldest Elder in Fort McKay, a home she didn’t see for many years after being placed in residential school along with her sisters.
Born near Fond-Du-Lac, SK, Gallup was raised in a traditional way, surrounded by her loving family in Fort McKay.
That soon ended when RCMP officers on dog sled arrived early one morning to take her and her sisters, Rose and Freda, off to the Grouard Residential School. Gallup was six. The young sisters never saw their parents again.
Grouard was to be her home for the next 12 years.
“I think definitely in residential school I toughened up because I was always defending Freda,” she remembers of her younger sister.
“I saw her being beaten up by the nuns. I’ve never ever seen anything like that. You know, pulling her pants down, slapping her there and I went hysterical, and I screamed and screamed, and they couldn’t stop me. I remember this was during the dinner, and in front of everybody. Everybody was let go and even when everybody was gone, I was still screaming.
“I was hysterical. I still have a hard time talking about how they treated her.
“There was three of us. I was in the middle and Rose was the eldest.”
When she was 18, Gallup was given a one-way ticket to Edmonton where she arrived with other girls from the school to face a dim future.
“I grew up in residential school; never left the premises. I didn’t know a thing and had no life experience, no skills, no job, no training, no education, no money, no anything, and you expected me to survive in the big city of Edmonton? Aside from racism, who’s going to hire someone like that?”
She states that surviving the city was harder than surviving Grouard, “but, I survived.”
She was one of the lucky few, as other girls went into prostitution with many dying by suicide.
Gallup managed to find a job as a cleaner in the old St Joseph geriatric hospital. Her job was to strip and clean the beds of elderly men.
“It was a terrible, terrible job. I went to the bathroom all the time throwing up.”
She soon moved into other more positive employment at businesses like Hotel MacDonald and GWG.
It wasn’t long before Gallup was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She was hospitalized for nearly a year during which she began upgrading her education, eventually earning her LPN designation in the late 1950s.
Though a tedious time in hospital, love bloomed for Gallup.
A man had started visiting her in hospital, bringing flowers and magazines.
“He treated me with respect. It was nice.”
A geologist by trade, Bill lived in Calgary, often travelling to Fort McMurray and frequently hired people from Fort McKay to work on his crew because they knew the land. It was during this time, he came to know the story of three little girls being taken away a long time ago. He learned of Gallup’s whereabouts when Rose made a visit to McMurray.
“Long story short – marriage,” chuckles Gallup.
“Yeah, my whole life changed; totally in a good way.”
The couple had four children and Gallup is immensely proud of them all. From social work to the arts, they have inherited their mother’s passion for helping others. She is also a grandmother and great grandmother.
In a career reflective of always helping others, Gallup worked at the Holy Cross Hospital before joining the team at the Department of Indian Affairs.
“I had so many clients who were single moms. Then I found out that a lot of kids were in care.”
It was unsettling for her to learn these Indigenous children were being sent to non-Indigenous foster homes. Some were adopted, unaware they were Indigenous.
This all prompted her to put forth a successful proposal to the provincial child welfare department, enabling Gallup to open her ground-breaking Nekinan group home. She managed this privately-owned home for some 17 years before selling it to a committed employee, Kirby Redwood.
“It was just a normal thing to do,” says Gallup of her life spent helping others. “I always go by common sense. Common sense guides me to do what’s right.
“It makes me feel better.”
Bill passed while she was operating the home and when Gallup became an empty-nester, she decided to also open a bed and breakfast featuring two tepees in Redwood Meadows.
Calling Redwood Meadows home for about 10 years, Gallup herself became a foster mother to a young girl who remains part of the family.
In 2004, Gallup decided it was time to go home to Fort McKay.
“My ancestors are here. My family are here.
“There was only about seven or eight people left who remembered us. People didn’t know what had happened to us.”
Once settled, Gallup set to sharing her knowledge and insight to keep the traditional culture alive for local youth. In a project proposed by Nicole Bourque-Bouchier, Gallup assisted with the collection of cultural items used in displays; taking a few months to carefully choose the items that would complement the spiritual and cultural health of the Fort McKay community.
Gallup also shared her story of life in a residential school during presentations with oil sands operators, including Syncrude.
“I wanted people to know what really happened,” she explains.
Gallup currently calls The Riverside/Sonisipihk/Des k’e gah Care Facility home and is a familiar sight in the hallways accompanied by her fur baby, Wifi.
“I have come full circle in my life. I’m 90, and I am very grateful and fortunate to have survived all these years.”
More of Gallup’s story can be seen in the video A Mother’s Voice on YouTube.