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This article was published 25/4/2018 (1047 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They grew up on opposite sides of the planet, in different cultures, where powerful forces were at work trying to wipe out their identities. As kids, they both survived traumatic events and both are now master storytellers who will be joining forces in Winnipeg on Sunday.
Winnipeg’s Theodore Fontaine, who survived residential schools, and Toronto’s Nate Leipciger, who survived the Holocaust, are coming together at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to share their experiences and how they’ve moved toward healing.
Fontaine is a former chief of the Sagkeeng Ojibway First Nation and survivor of the Fort Alexander and Assiniboia Indian Residential schools.
When he attended Fort Alexander Indian Residential School as a younger student, he said he was shown films that demonized and denigrated the indigenous. "It made me hate my own people," he said last year, in a Free Press interview about the Assiniboia Indian Residential School reunion he was helping organize for classmates and neighbours of the long-defunct school in River Heights. Fontaine has spoken to thousands of students and adults across Canada about his experiences and the need for reconciliation.
In 2010, Fontaine’s Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir was published.
He has said he has some good memories of the Winnipeg school but knows much damage was caused by the residential system.
It operated between approximately 1870 and 1996, with more than 150,000 Indigenous children removed from their families and communities. They were required to spend most of the year learning to despise their own peoples and cultures.
The schools were set up to address the "Indian problem" — the notion that Indigenous peoples represented an obstacle to Canadian territorial expansion, property ownership and nation-building.
The solution to this supposed problem was thought to be assimilation — destroying Indigenous groups by forcibly transforming their children.
Leipciger was an 11-year-old boy whose family was forced to leave their home when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and they were moved to a ghetto. At age 15, he was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/extermination camp.
His mother and sister were killed in Auschwitz, but his father survived and protected him.
Leipciger ended up in a subcamp of the Dachau concentration camp, where the prisoners were liberated by American soldiers.
In June 1948, Leipciger and his father immigrated to Canada. He has been called a trailblazer in Holocaust education, bringing heart and humanity to history.
In 2015, his book Weight of Freedom, about life and death at Auschwitz-Birkenau and other slave-labour and concentration camps, was published. In 2016, Leipciger served as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s guide on a tour through Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Leipciger met Fontaine when the Azrieli Foundation and the non-profit organization Facing History and Ourselves brought the two survivors together for a series of talks in Toronto with university and high school students.
They last spoke at an event in Halifax in November. Sunday will be the first time they’ve appeared together in Winnipeg.
They plan to talk about the process of writing their memoirs. Their conversation about loss, trauma and the writing of memoirs will focus on their unique personal experiences and where they intersect on their healing journey, said moderator Leora Schaefer, executive director of Facing History and Ourselves Canada.
The event takes place Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Admission is free but attendees are asked to RSVP by Wednesday at powerofmemoir.eventbrite.com.
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.