I have now finished reading the book Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools: A Memoir by Theodore Fontaine. Something that has stuck with me even after completing this book was the explanations of the superior attitudes of white people throughout the pages of Fontaine’s book.
It is astonishing to me that the residential school system was even started in the first place. Why did white people think that they were so much better than First Nations people that they could try to completely eliminate their culture? In his book, Fontaine (2010) discusses the reasons for establishing the residential school system:
In 1920, Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs, directed that all Native children between the ages of 7 and 15 were to attend Indian residential schools. He stated before the House of Commons, ‘I want to get rid of the Indian problem…Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department, that this is the whole object of this Bill [to establish the residential school system]’. (p. 282-283)
What gave white people the right to think that First Nations people were a “problem”? I just get so frustrated when I read things like this. What was it that made the white man so much better than the rest? What gave them the right to belittle another people’s culture? Fontaine (2010) states that while attending residential school “…we learned to be ashamed of and hate being Indian” (p. 284). He also says that “Indians were portrayed as savages standing in the way of progress, whose only pastime was massacring white people developing the land and resources” (p. 284-285). I do not understand why First Nations people were portrayed as killers and savages when white people were the ones who were killing off the culture of an entire race of people.
Not only were these First Nations children affected by the loss of their culture while they were at school, but they were affected by this loss of their culture for the rest of their lives. Fontaine (2010) says:
As I got older, summer jobs became more stressful as I became more aware that some managers had superior attitudes toward Indian people. I believed then that we were in fact less capable of doing what white people could do, as the nuns and priests has taught us that we could not ever have the jobs of bosses. (p. 233-234)
If you had always been told your whole life that you were no good, that you were lazy, that you would never amount to anything, you would certainly start to believe it. The terrible things that these First Nations children were taught about themselves and their people stayed with them and had such negative effects on their entire lives.
The way that First Nations people were treated and the superior attitudes of white people also led to the creation of many offensive stereotypes about First Nations people. Fontaine (2010) says that “In many workplaces, I got the clear message that I was expected to be incapable, lazy or have to be assigned a co-worker because I wouldn’t understand what I had to do” (p. 255). How would young white people in the workplace have come up with this perception of First Nations people unless they had always been taught to think that way? It is a terrible thing that these stereotypes were believed by everyone – white people and First nations people alike. Probably the very saddest thing that I read in Broken Circle was this:
It’s unfortunate that at the long shadow of my life I’m only beginning to treasure my worthiness and uniqueness, and take joy and comfort in my Indian status. I have so little time to do so fully, but at least I’ve come to appreciate my own culture. (Fontaine, 2010, p. 261)
It is incredibly sad that it took Fontaine so long to be able to appreciate the fact that he is First Nations, and it is even more devastating that so many of the children who attended residential schools took their own lives before they ever got the chance to learn to love themselves again.
*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.