Irene Kelleher was the first Indigenous woman in B.C. to be granted a teaching certificate. (Photo courtesy of The Reach, P11696)

Family of first Indigenous teacher in B.C. is subject of new book

Irene Kelleher and family of Matsqui were subject to prejudice and mistreatment

A new book details the life of the family of the first Indigenous woman in B.C. to be granted a teaching certificate and who went on to become a school principal in Abbotsford.

Invisible Generations: Living Between Indigenous and White in the Fraser Valley was written by Jean Barman of Vancouver and tells the story of the Kelleher family – who were of mixed Indigenous and white descent – and the prejudice they faced.

Irene Kelleher, born in Matsqui (which later amalgamated with Abbotsford), first applied to teach in Abbotsford but was rejected, a decision she attributed to her heritage and gender.

She then began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse near Terrace, B.C. in 1921 and then at other locations across B.C.

Her students over the years included Doukhobor children at a time when the community was vehemently opposed to their offspring attending school.

Irene eventually obtained a job at Abbotsford’s North Poplar Elementary, where she became principal during the Second World War.

Irene retired in Abbotsford in 1964 after 43 years of teaching and died on March 16, 2004 at the age of 102.

Barman’s book details how Irene’s white grandfathers were attracted to the future B.C. by a gold rush beginning in 1858 and had families with Indigenous women.

But the dominant white society in their community in the Fraser Valley did not accept them, the book indicates.

Invisible Generations also looks into the Catholic residential school system that Irene’s parents and many other “mixed blood” children attended.

Royalties from Invisible Generations will go in Irene Kelleher’s name to sustain the Julia Mathilda and Cornelius Kelleher Endowment Memorial Scholarship and the Irene Kelleher Memorial Endowment Bursary at University of the Fraser Valley.

Barman is an historian and author of more than a dozen books about B.C. and Canadian history, including Sojourning Sisters, for which she won the 2004 Lieutenant Governor’s Medal of Historical Writing.

Much of Barman’s writing attends to the stories and histories of Indigenous people and to Canadian women and families.

Her writing has garnered more than a dozen Canadian and American awards.

She is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and the recipient of a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Barman holds graduate degrees from Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and University of British Columbia, and an honorary doctorate from Vancouver Island University.

Invisible Generations (Caitlin Press) is available at local bookstores.

RELATED: Multigenerational pain of residential schools lingers for many in B.C.

RELATED: ‘I was not a number’: Abbotsford school class turns into residential school memoir

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Jean Barman is the author of the new book Living Between Indigenous and White in the Fraser Valley, about the Kelleher family.

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