December 7, 2019

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Opinion

Residential school in city's backyard

Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)Making peace with the past
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy, now the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, that he went to in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy, now the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, that he went to in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s and looks at an archival class photo of him and his classmates  from 1958. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s and looks at an archival class photo of him and his classmates from 1958. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)
Class photo of the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy headed by Rev Father O. Robidoux, Principal.
Class photo of the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy headed by Rev Father O. Robidoux, Principal.
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)
Theodore Fontaine, visits the former Assiniboia Residential School at 611 Academy he attended in the late 1950’s. (Ruth Bonneville/Winnipeg Free Press)

Theodore "Ted" Fontaine stands a little bent. It's his hip. He leans into the well of a big window of his long-ago classroom at the Assiniboia Indian Residential School.

Winnipeggers may not have heard of it. They cannot see it, even though the building stands limestone-sturdy; it's hidden by newer buildings where Academy Road meets Route 90. Through spattering rain, he looks onto the backyards of tidy little houses on Wellington Crescent South. The people who lived there have all likely moved on, says Fontaine, 73.

I wonder if they knew you were here, I say.

"Oh, they knew. They had gardens. We were hungry," he says with a grin.

This is a story of survival and transformation. Yes, reconciliation. It's about chance, fate and other words used to describe stuff we can't explain.

Nipping tomatoes and cucumbers is one thing Fontaine, a former Sagkeeng chief, remembers of his time in River Heights, at the school where he spent Grade 10 in 1958, and part of Grade 11 before he "walked away" to work in the bush.

It is a classic building, stone with understated ornamentation on the facade, built in 1918 by the Winnipeg School Division for the Children's Home of Winnipeg, which had its boys' and girls' residences on the spot where the RCMP forensic lab now sits.

This is how history hides.

The school itself is now home to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, the doggedly determined organization that tracks down Internet predators and missing children.

In what was Fontaine's first classroom, cyber-sleuths pore over website links, documenting child pornography and other unholy abuses against tender innocents.

The irony — residential school to child saviours — is not lost on Fontaine, who, after repeat visits to make peace with his past, has made close associations with centre staff.


Theodore Fontaine visits the former Assiniboia Residential School.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Theodore Fontaine visits the former Assiniboia Residential School.

There are scars. He remembers the taunts of the neighbourhood kids walking past his third-floor dorm window on fall evenings, after the Grey nuns and Oblate fathers who ran the school from 1958 to 1972 sent them to bed. Fontaine was 15 in the school's first year.

"You plop a residential school in the middle of River Heights, it wasn't nice. We would go to bed by 9 (p.m.), up here on the third floor and there'd be young people going back and forth doing war whoops and stuff."

Still, compared to his early school years at Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, Assiniboia was "like a breath of fresh air." The director, Father Omer Robidoux, was a gem. "A lot of people think they (residential school staff) were monsters," Fontaine says. "They weren't. We loved him. He was very kind."

Robidoux encouraged the boys, hungry for pocket change to spend at the pharmacy across the road, to shovel driveways for nearby residents. It was the most contact they had with their neighbours, those strangers. And they were occasionally shown small kindnesses.

Like the day he and a couple others took their shovel and landed a gig at the door of one house, nearer Grosvenor Avenue. A young girl answered the door: "Mom, I think they're those Indians from the school." They shovelled, pocketed their coins and were offered hot chocolate.

Like most things in life, the residential schools story can't be wedged neatly into good and bad, black and white. Lifting the lid off the experiences of former residential school students set off a gusher of horrendous stories, now documented by Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Yet to say the obscene abuses, the cultural decimation, happened amid a prevailing evil gives short shrift to how history happens. The federal policy, born of a desire to kill the Indian in the child, was racist, destructive and self-serving for governments of the day. But the staff who visited ruin upon children worked beside teachers, caretakers, supervisors who nurtured their charges.

Fontaine lived the fuller context. He was beaten at Fort Alex. Taught to look down on his own people, he was scornful of his parents upon returning home in the summer. He says his confidence and self-esteem were trampled by a system designed to erase his identity.

Yet, he found some freedom at Assiniboia, made lasting friendships, with children from across Manitoba.

But he itched to get out.

He figures Winnipeggers didn't know much about the city's only residential school. And there's nothing prominently marking the spot.

Ry Moran wants to change that. The director of the TRC's permanent research centre at the University of Manitoba wants to plant a commemorative plaque on Wellington Crescent near the walking/cycling trail next to the Assiniboine River, opposite a baseball field.


A class photo from 1958 shows school director Father Omer Robidoux with his students, including Fontaine, sixth from left in the top row.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A class photo from 1958 shows school director Father Omer Robidoux with his students, including Fontaine, sixth from left in the top row.

That field was a playground for the Assiniboia children. It was where hockey scouts, like Joe Mendella, local man for the Detroit Red Wings, would spy prospects on the rink there. Mendella signed Fontaine to a "C contract," that sent the young man to camp in Flin Flon. He didn't stay.

What followed were the lost years, when he hit the bottle. Fontaine always worked, but he would not find his way until his 30s, when he graduated from civil engineering at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. He had a successful career in mineral exploration before working for the lands division of Indian Affairs.

Fontaine succeeded in life. But he wonders how much he might have done, what all the children might have done, if their lives weren't moulded by a failed policy to assimilate.

He met his future wife, who also worked at Indian Affairs, 33 years ago. For the second time, as it turned out.

She was the young thing at the door of that River Heights house 20 years earlier, who called her mom when the "Indian" boys turned up looking to make some spending money.

His wife, Morgan, is helping Fontaine document his journey. He has done some 300 speaking engagements, published his first book (Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools), reunited with friends from Assiniboia.

It's part of a long, hard slog to make peace with a piece of Canada's past, to resolve the mutual racism, distrust and resentments infecting our communities. Misunderstanding. The residential school policy happened to all of us, we agree.

In the end, we're all just walking each other home, I say, ripping off of a bit of wisdom from Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass.

"I like that," Fontaine nods. His analogy is the ladder: Tall and steep, those who climb out must remember not to pull it up after them, but leave it in place for the others who follow.

Or maybe, more fitting for Winnipeg, we're still clearing driveways after the storm, to reach our neighbours' doors.

 

Catherine Mitchell is a Free Press editorial writer.

catherine.mitchell@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @wfpcmitchell

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History

Updated on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at 6:47 AM CDT: Corrects reference to Fontaine's wife; replaces photos.

11:25 AM: Adds slideshow

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