Author shares residential school story

Glen Hallick

A stroll down a dirt road dramatically altered Theodore Fontaine's life when he was young boy back in 1948.

"I lived this very serene life until I was seven-years-old," Fontaine said.

His parents were taking their son to the nearby Fort Alexander Indian Residential School.

There he would spend nearly all of the next 10 years separated from his parents despite them residing only a mile and a half away.

Last month, Fontaine spoke at the Wednesday Morning Group at Carman United Church about his life, particularly the effects stemming from residential school.

He wrote a 190-page book; Broken Circle: the Dark legacy of Indian Residential Schools, about his experiences.

'Government Mistake'

"I tried to compact all of the information that I have into that little space. It could have been very easily five times, six times bigger," Fontaine said. "The main purpose of [the book], was to inform our own people and the Canadian public this was a policy that was a mistake made by the Canadian government. I wanted it to be read."

During his residential school years, he only saw his mother and father during summer holidays, Christmas break, spring break and perhaps for a few moments after church on Sundays.

That government sanctioned forced separation meant he lost so much.

"When I went home in the summer time, the first two or three weeks were spent adjusting to my family," Fontaine said. "You didn't trust anybody. We didn't want to be abandoned again."

And Fontaine's time in the Catholic run Fort Alexander residential school marked the second of four phases.

The first was his childhood before being sent to the residential school. That life, like any other young boy, was spent playing.

Fontaine said he spent a lot of time with his grandfather on the trap line and picking blueberries.

The second phase encompassed the 12 years he spent in the residential school, which besides Fort Alexander included high school at the Assiniboia Indian Residential School from 1958 to 1960.

The third, from age 17 to 29 was rife with alcohol abuse, mistrust, and not being proud of his heritage.

Coming To Terms

He said coming to terms with what happened is the hardest part.

"I'm on the last phase, which is never complete," Fontaine said of the fourth phase. "I came to the conclusion, this is what happened to me."

Concentration camp visit

It's one that got started with a visit to the Dachau Concentration Camp near Munich, Germany he took with wife Morgan in 1983.

From 1933 to 1945 almost 31,600 people, mostly Jews, died at the concentration camp. Despite the horrors of physical, mental and sexual abuse in residential school, Fontaine saw the camp as having been much worse than what he experienced.

"This was one of the things that made my resolve stronger," he said.

Over the years he has reconnected with some of the staff who worked at the Fort Alexander residential school.

He said some staff were ignorant of the abuse that went on in the residential schools while others weren't not fully aware of how extensive the abuse had been.

And he returned to the Catholic Church.

Although a Catholic, Fontaine also embraces his Ojibway spirituality.

Duncan Scott

He said a government official named Duncan Scott came up with a plan in the 1920s which changed the focus of industrial schools.

Reorganized into residential schools, Scott's plan was to eradicate the heritages and cultures of the First Nations students by teaching them to hate themselves.

After residential school Fontaine earned his degree in civil engineer in May 1973.

By the end of the decade he had been elected chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation and played a major role in building Canada's first seniors home on a reserve.