I only have about twenty-five pages left to go before I complete my reading of Theodore Fontaine’s Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir. I am finding that I have to continuously remind myself that this is a true story, the true story of somebody’s life. It is so difficult to accept that so many First Nations children had to endure the tragic abuse of Indian residential schools.
As I am reading I am struck again and again by the horror that was the residential school system. Each time Fontaine describes another account of abuse I am brought almost to tears. I imagine what it must have been like for those children, all alone and unable to fight back against the abuse from which they suffered. It must have also been difficult for the families of these children to know what they were going through, but not be able to do anything to help them. Fontaine speaks about one instance of physical abuse that particularly stuck with me because of the reaction of his mother, despite knowing what her son was experiencing. He explains that at the age of fourteen years old he had been smoking a cigarette and that “…Brother B.’s acute sense of smell found me out” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 158). He goes on to say that Brother B. “…swung his right arm back, and with a quick, deliberate whirlwind motion, his clenched fist cracked me across my face, clipping my nose” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 158). Although this physical abuse is sickening and inexcusable, it was the description of his mother’s reaction that I could not get over. After the beating, Fontaine ran away from school and went home to his family where “despite the circumstances, Mom decided I must return to school the next day” (2010, p. 160). After having her son come home to her with a beaten and bloody face, how could she have possibly made the decision to send him back to that terrible place? It was because she was taught to believe that residential school was the only place where her children would get an education. Fontaine (2010) states that “…she strongly believed that attending residential school would allow me to succeed in a white person’s world” (p. 151).
Perhaps even worse than the physical abuse was the sexual and emotional abuse that the children were made to endure. Fontaine discusses several encounters with Mr. H, the shop teacher, who exposed his genitals and forced himself on many of the young boys. He describes one encounter in particular that was experienced by a friend of his. “A survivor friend remembers drinking with Mr. H and then having Mr. H force him to lie on top of his wife as he stood aside and masturbated” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 23). I cannot begin to imagine how I would react in a similar situation, nor would I even want to imagine being put in a similar situation. Fontaine also describes how in some of their classes they were not permitted to go to the bathroom. “I had begun to wiggle because I needed to have a bowel movement. My persistence finally elicited an angry response from Father C.: he flung a blackboard eraser at me and shouted that I could wait. I succumbed and shat, very quietly, into my pants” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 73-74). Certainly the other boys in his class knew what he had done and I am sure that this embarrassment must have produced terrible emotional effects.
Having their culture stripped from them was another form of abuse that the children experienced at residential schools. Fontaine speaks about not being allowed to speak his own language at school. He describes a time when he and his friends were in the playroom and Sister S. overheard them speaking in Ojibway. “I’d inadvertently said something in Ojibway. She’d assumed I was referring to her when a couple of the boys laughed at my comment.” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 169). He explains that his punishment that day was that he was put into a small, dark closet behind the chair in which Sister S. was sitting. He goes on to say that when he was eventually let out of the closet, Sister S. gave him “…a warning not to speak my ‘savage’ language” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 170).
It is truly something to be admired that Fontaine was able to go on and achieve success in his life after enduring all of that abuse and being “…mentally crippled by the experience” (2010, p. 193). Unfortunately other victims of this evil system were not so lucky. “Most survivors left school in their teens or early 20s, and most didn’t live long” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 193). For those who did survive and go on to do other things with their lives, the lasting effects of the abuse that they suffered is very real. “The bad effects of our early school years surface every day of our lives, affecting how we live” (Fontaine, 2010, p. 195). After reading Fontaine’s book, it is no wonder to me that these people are still so traumatized by what happened to them.
*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.
Fontaine, T. (2010). Broken circle: The dark legacy of Indian residential schools: A memoir. Victoria, BC: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd.