The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools
By Theodore Fontaine
Heritage, 190 pages, $20
IN this lucid and poignant memoir, a prominent Manitoba aboriginal describes the effect the residential school system had on him.
Born on the Fort Alexander Indian Reserve (Sagkeeng First Nation) in 1941 and now living in Winnipeg, Theodore Fontaine recounts how the forced assimilation into white culture affected his relationship to his family.
He recalls how he dealt with endemic racist attitudes and how he continues to struggle today with the trauma inflicted by years of physical, sexual, mental and spiritual abuse.
Fontaine was the chief of Sagkeeng from 1979 to 1981 and has been a respected leader and negotiator for aboriginal peoples for many years.
He attended the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School from 1948 through 1958 and the Assiniboia Indian Residential School from 1958 through 1960.
He tells us how the pain and suffering Canada's First Nations' children endured during the years they attended residential schools has not been extinguished by time and that their collective misery cannot be consigned to the sins of past generations of Canadians.
Residential school survivors cannot simply forget the mistreatment they experienced in a system whose goal was, to quote Duncan Campbell Scott, the head of Indian Affairs from 1913-1932, "to get rid of the Indian problem."
"Our objective," he said, "is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic."
The last residential schools did not close until the 1970s. The survivors are the parents and grandparents of children in our community schools and many are afflicted, as is Fontaine, with what he terms "residential school syndrome," which is marked by trauma-related social and personal dysfunction.
The strength of Fontaine's story is in his description of his life on the reserve before he was taken off to school. He portrays a free idyllic time when he learned the ways of nature and formed a tight-knit bond with his loving parents and extended family. The happy times ended when he turned seven.
The Fort Alexander school was only a few kilometres from Fontaine's home on the reserve. His parents took him to the school and left him with the priest.
He was only allowed to visit with them for a few minutes after Sunday mass and go home during summer holidays. This led to feelings of abandonment. He asked himself what he had done to deserve his imprisonment and felt a deep-seated guilt and anger.
Fontaine begins with a story of how he and his nine-year-old classmates were sexually abused for years by a priest named "Father P.," who we see in one of the many photos Fontaine has included in the book.
Weren't there good and kind priests and nuns in the school who truly cared for the students? Yes, writes Fontaine, but their goal was assimilation and they "pounded into our little minds that our parents couldn't look after us as well as the school could."
They taught the children to hate their Indianness and that they were better than their reserve families.
The story of his struggle to heal his mind and spirit is more diffuse and meandering. He finds strength in the work ethic his parents had instilled in him, in his dedication to his people, in relatives who share and understand their collective suffering and a wife who could love him throughout his healing journey.
Fontaine has crafted a book that will foster understanding and empathy, as it implicitly asks all readers to examine their own views on this tragic period in our history.
Ian Stewart has spent his teaching career in a Winnipeg core area school.