I am about halfway through my chosen book, Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir, by Theodore Fontaine. I have cried, I have smiled, and I have felt very moved by the harsh truths about Indian residential schools.
There is no doubt that attending residential schools was a terrible thing to have had to endure and is certainly a difficult thing for the survivors to try to heal from. What is particularly saddening about Fontaine’s story is that his parents thought that he was going to school to get a good education and they thought that he would be taken care of. Fontaine (2010) says “my parents dropped me off … believing I would be cared for by the priests and nuns” (p. 24). Possibly because the church played such an important role in their lives, they falsely believed that their children would be safe at these residential schools. Fontaine’s parents were probably also very happy with the knowledge that their children were going to get an education because he speaks of “…Mom’s reassurance and excitement about my learning to read” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 32). It is also sad that Fontaine himself did not understand what was happening to him when he was being dropped off by his parents at the school for the first time. He says “…I remember no confusion, no sadness, no desperation, only joy and innocence…” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 30). He too believed that he was simply going away to attend school, not going away to suffer unimaginable emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. He had no idea when he first went there that it would be such a traumatic experience that would affect his whole life. As he states in his book, “this thing, this residential school syndrome, is cruel and won’t go away” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 45).
Despite all of the awful stories of abuse in Fontaine’s book, however, what have stuck with me the most in my reading so far are the stories about how First Nations people were not treated like human beings at all. Not only were the children who attended residential schools treated poorly, but all First Nations people in general were treated unfairly. It is obvious while reading Fontaine’s book that First Nations people were considered to be less privileged, less important, less “human” than white people. Referring to his mother, Fontaine (2010) says “her goal was for us to be just as good as the white kids and do what they could do” (p. 34) and “she hoped that all the amenities white people enjoyed would someday be mine” (p. 35). It is clear that white people thought that they were better than First Nations people, and maybe most First Nations people believed that. Obviously Fontaine’s mother believed it as she wanted her children to be “as good as the white kids” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 34). I believe that this ideology is the reason behind the creation of Indian residential schools. These statements by Fontaine (2010) have stayed with me since I read them:
The system was designed by the federal government to eliminate First Nations people from the face of our land and country, to rob the world of a people simply because our values and beliefs did not fit theirs. The system was racist and based on the assumption that we were not human but rather part animal, to be desavaged and moulded into something we could never become – white. (p. 25)
It is terribly unfortunate that Fontaine’s statements above were the way of thinking back then. What is even more unfortunate, however, is that many white people today still hold on to these beliefs and stereotypes about First Nations people. Let us all just be grateful that at least these residential schools are a thing of the past.
*Note: I am reading an electronic version of this book, so page numbers given will not correspond with page numbers in the print version of the book.