National Aboriginal Day has come and gone, but given the dark legacy of residential schools in Canada, aboriginal people and Canadians are fortunate we still have something to celebrate.
These government-funded and church-run schools, the first of which opened in the 1840s, with the last closing in 1996, sought to “kill the Indian in the child”, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
During the residential school period, the government attempted to “kill the Indian” in over 150,000 Métis, First Nations and Inuit children at more than 130 schools, including one at Morley.
An estimated 80,000 of those individuals are still living.
As part of the government’s assimilation program, aboriginal children experienced physical, emotional and sexual abuse and, according to the commission, some students died while in the care of staff at residential schools.
Children were forbidden to speak their own language and siblings of the opposite sex rarely had the chance to interact as boys and girls were segregated.
The Canadian government apologized to residential school survivors in 2008, following a 2007 settlement agreement.
For many non-aboriginal people the claims residential school survivors make about the effect this system had on themselves, their families and their culture are often difficult to comprehend or, for some, even accept, as few non-aboriginal people have had a similar experience.
But the story of Theodore Fontaine, who spent 12 years at Fort Alexander and Assiniboia Indian Residential Schools in Manitoba, as told in his memoir Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools creates a poignant and powerful story that will help Canadians understand why the residential school system had such a devastating effect.
“For years I suffered in silence. I wondered if other children had to lose their families at age seven or even younger just to attend school. I came to believe that it was natural to be wrenched from your family at this age. I lived with the daily reminder that we were not like the predominant white race. The pounding into our minds that we were less than our keepers took its toll: more than two-thirds of my schoolmates died early, mostly from lives lived trying to forget,” Fontaine wrote in the book’s dedication.
That is the first paragraph of this 190-page book.
The rest is equally powerful and somber, but ultimately, it is a hopeful and victorious story, as Fontaine found a way through his pain and came to terms with what he saw as “an overwhelming anger” at his parents for abandoning him.
But any parent can imagine the sense of anger and guilt Fontaine’s parents felt at having to betray a son who had just turned seven.
To make it worse, two of Fontaine’s older cousins had been tasked by the priests to escort Fontaine from his parents.
“I started bawling and struggled to break free of their grasp as mom kissed me on the forehead and told my cousins, in Ojibway, to look after me. I understood clearly then that she was leaving me.
“My trust in my parents was shattered. It would take me years to understand that trust goes hand in hand with understanding why a loved one does things. Sometimes broken trust never heals,” he wrote.
Broken Circle allows readers to understand that the residential school experience, while damaging to the culture, language, history and beliefs of aboriginal people, is a human story.
At the heart of the residential school experience, as Fontaine relates it, is the damage caused to families when young children are removed from the people who love them.
Fontaine, who lives in Winnipeg, has served as chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation, as executive director of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, and Strategic Advisor to the Chiefs on Indian residential school issues. He currently chairs the Indigenous Leadership Development Institute.
National Aboriginal Day, held on June 21, reminds us to cherish Canada’s aboriginal culture and people as an integral part of who we are.
It also reminds us that there are people behind this culture, people who suffered a great wrong and Fontaine’s courage to tell his story publically can only help that process, and in turn, help aboriginal people heal.
Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, published by Heritage House, retails for $19.95.