Historian Jean Barman to speak about Abbotsford legend Irene Kelleher — Feb 10

Governor General Award-winning author Jean Barman will present a talk about Abbotsford teacher Irene Kelleher at the University of the Fraser Valley on February 10.

In her new book, Invisible Generations: Living Between Indigenous and White in the Fraser Valley (Caitlin Press), Barman explores the history of the region and the prejudice people of mixed Indigenous and white descent faced in the mid-1900s, with a focus on her good friend Irene Kelleher.

Born and raised in Matsqui, Irene Kelleher was the first BC woman of Indigenous heritage to be awarded a teaching certificate. Unable to get a job close to home, she taught across the farthest reaches of the province, including Doukhobor schools in the Cariboo, small single-room school houses, and even remote island communities. Eventually, Irene returned to the Fraser Valley and worked in Abbotsford for 25 years, and was the principal of North Poplar Elementary during WWII, before retiring in 1964.

“Irene was burdened by history. She lived all her life in the shadow of a past she bore in her physical features, so she considered, and in her every action,” says Barman. While not wholly Indigenous, the Kelleher family’s Indigenous descent separated them from the dominant white society, who stereotyped and demeaned them with the pejorative term “half-breed”.

Despite this treatment, Irene took great pride in her family’s history, “especially with respect to her parents’ and grandparents’ lives,” says Barman. “But it was also a past that she felt set her apart from those around her — both in everyday life and in her career as a schoolteacher.

Barman notes that there is a University of the Fraser Valley connection to the Kelleher story.

“Invisible Generations would not exist except for the good work of the University of the Fraser Valley. A mutual acquaintance suggested to Irene Kelleher, the book’s subject, that she share with me her bittersweet story of, to quote its subtitle, Living between Indigenous and White in the Fraser Valley. And it was to longtime faculty member, Douglas Hudson — with whom Irene had in retirement taken a course on Indigenous history giving her pride in her combination of Indigenous and white descent—she turned for advice as to whether or not I could be trusted.”

Barman and Kelleher met in the 1990s and began working on the book, but at the request of her friend, Barman waited until after Kelleher’s death to publish it.

Additionally, Barman explains, “the rightness of the time for publication is prompted by a greater openness in British Columbia and across Canada towards persons of mixed Indigenous and white descent, as Irene was, and by new publications opening up broader perspectives on the history of British Columbia’s Fraser Valley, where Irene lived.”

Irene was a proud supporter of scholarships established by the University of the Fraser Valley (earlier called the University College of the Fraser Valley). Barman is donating all book royalties in Irene’s name to the Julia Mathilda and Cornelius Kelleher Endowment Memorial Scholarship and the Irene Kelleher Memorial Endowment Bursary at UFV. Irene established in the funds in her parents’ honour out of her savings as a career school teacher in Abbotsford and across British Columbia, and to UFV’s Irene Kelleher Memorial Endowment Bursary for students of Indigenous descent.

Monday, February 10, 2020 at noon.
Room B101 (lecture theatre), Abbotsford Campus)

* Refreshments to follow.
* Everyone welcome!

For more information about the book visit http://caitlin-press.com/our-books/invisible-generations/.

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One Response to Historian Jean Barman to speak about Abbotsford legend Irene Kelleher — Feb 10

  1. Shelley Lewis February 5, 2020 at 8:23 pm #

    I met her as a young girl in Abbotsford. My Grandmother took me to visit her. She must have been retired by then. I would love to attend on the 10th but I am taking my mother to a appointment. I would really like more info on where to purchase this book in her honour.