“Will you ever be happy?” A grade 5 student asked me that question following a presentation of my Indian Residential School experiences in her classroom. Although I have told my story to more than 300 audiences across Canada and the United States—and responded to a wide range of questions—no one had ever asked me that, and I wasn’t sure I knew the answer.
For more than 100 years, First Nations and Inuit children were removed from their homes and communities to be locked up in residential schools, operated across Canada as a matter of federal policy decided in the Parliament of Canada. The Indian Residential Schools policy and era were not intended to support or educate our people, but to get us out of the way of settler development and access to the wealth of Canada’s natural resources. Implementation of the policy, primarily carried out by churches acting for the Canadian government, aimed to destroy our cultural and linguistic heritage, legal and religious freedoms, governmental and societal structures, and the very identities of Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Canada’s policy targeted children to ensure continuous destruction from one generation to the next. I was one of those children, incarcerated in Indian Residential Schools for 12 years, taken in just days after my seventh birthday.
People often ask what happened to me in those schools. Why did my parents leave me there? Did I tell someone about the abuses I endured? Adults ask why they didn’t already know about this. Did I try to run away? Do I forgive the abusers? Children ask why I couldn’t go home to sleep and what I got to eat. Did I tell the principal? Did we have a TV? I tried to answer these questions and more when writing about my experiences in Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir.
Before residential school, I lived a blissful and joyous life with my family, mishoom and kookum (grandfather and grandmother) and extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I spoke only Ojibway and contributed to the well-being of our households by bringing water, wood, and the occasional snared little meal into our homes. For the next 12 years, I was locked up, punished for speaking Ojibway, shamed for being Indian. It was pounded into me that our people were no good, that Ojibway was a language of savages, that we were less than our keepers. I experienced every type of abuse: physical, sexual, mental, and spiritual. Through my many years of healing and reconciliation, I have confronted these damages and abuses to the best of my ability. In writing Broken Circle, some of these abuses were too difficult to include, but I attempted to reveal at least examples of each type. Those were mild in comparison to some of the worst I experienced.
The most insidious bombardment and teaching at residential schools instilled in our young minds hate for who we were, that we were not smart enough or good enough to do what the rest of Canadians can do or become. Those perceptions pervade our lives even today—insinuations that an Indian couldn’t be a qualified doctor, lawyer, teacher, nurse, author, or achieve other professional designations.
I am always apprehensive to speak about what happened to me at residential schools. Sometimes I get flashbacks, soul-crushing relivings of traumatic experiences from my young years. I have so often been told that these abuses could not be true, that I must be lying, that representatives of God could never have been perpetrators of child abuse. These denials fill me with guilt for what happened to me and that I have spoken about it and implicated perpetrators, though, ironically, I protect their identities.
Survivors of abuse are often hesitant to speak up. We know the truth of what happened to us, and that some will try to deny or minimize or refute our truth. For me, speaking out is part of my reconciliation, but at times the guilt, blame, and shame that was pounded into me rises inside, a black tide of depression, frustration, and anger. Sometimes I just feel sorry for the perpetrators who abused me. More often, I think about the loss of so many young lives, those who didn’t survive and those who did but whose tremendous potential to contribute to our people and Canada was never nurtured or realized.
People don’t know about the healing and reconciliation survivors go through. We are plagued by the allegations of people who try to refute and belittle our true experiences. It is hard to listen to those voices who say, “Why can’t they just get over it?” My voice is fuelled by other residential school survivors who say, “Thank you for writing your book. Those things happened to me too. They really did happen.”
In June 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its findings, including a summary of its final report and 94 recommendations described in its Calls to Action. It is important to understand that the work of the commission was not brought about by the good intentions of government, but by court order of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. This agreement was a negotiated settlement to legal action taken by residential school survivors to rectify the wrongs and damages done by the genocidal policy of forcing Indigenous children into residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as an element of this agreement, and its findings and recommendations emanated from thousands of survivor disclosures and testimonies brought to light by the work of the commission.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls Canadians in all walks of life to take action, with multiple recommendations specific to education of youth, newcomers to Canada, and both public and private sectors. I believe that educators are those who will make the most difference, helping generations of youth to build relationships among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples based on our seven sacred teachings of knowledge, love, honour, courage, honesty, humility, and truth.
The words facing history and ourselves form a strong descriptor of the hard work of residential school survivors in talking about their experience of this Canadian history so long denied and concealed. Shining a bright light on it, Stolen Lives is a critical resource to guide teachers and students in finding their individual and collective opportunities to walk this road of reconciliation. The guide enables learning by exploring the truth of our lived residential school experiences, hearing our voices, understanding our context. After more than 100 years of this genocidal policy, educators now have access to information to teach our children about residential schools. Our children have the right to know and to create a better future for themselves and future generations.
Prior to the research and documentation initiatives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, information about the Indian Residential Schools had been produced by governments and various non-Indigenous organizations and individuals, presenting their own perspectives as factual accounts. It is critical to understand the Indigenous traditions of oral history, by which the heritage of our people has been preserved and handed down through the centuries. The importance of capturing this oral history and hearing first-person testimony is critical to success in the classroom, particularly now as the number of survivors of residential schools is fast diminishing. Although our stories may be taken up by our children and grandchildren, the real effects and hidden memories known only to survivors realistically may be lost forever. Although it is most difficult to touch the innermost hurts and scars of our past, survivors have the right to speak about their own experiences. I hope that educators using this guide will invite survivors into their classrooms for students to meet them, see their faces, and hear their voices, that their hearts may be touched so deeply as to never forget.
Canadians must embrace the reality and promise of its First Peoples as we rediscover the pride and resolve to revive and uphold our unique characteristics. I have relearned my Ojibway language and much of our culture, and nothing gives me such joy as to be able to sling my language through conversations with family and friends and to teach a few words here and there to non-Indigenous people who express interest in hearing this soaring, descriptive language. I imagine with horror, had the residential schools policy been successful, how many beautiful languages would have disappeared. We cannot retrieve what we have lost, or might lose, from anywhere else in the world. If we lose it here, it disappears forever.
In my visits to all parts of this great land to speak on what happened to us, I try to urge survivors and elders to delve into their memories and talk together about our shared history. We did survive and will never be the “vanishing Indian” or the conquered people. We will always proudly be Canada’s First Peoples, we the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island.
I write this foreword with hope and humility as a participant in the tradition of our ancestors: the passing of our true knowledge to the future knowledge keepers and leaders of our wonderful homeland.
Kitchi miigwetch, a big thank you, to Facing History and Ourselves for helping to bring the true history of Canada’s Indian Residential Schools into the present and into the future, and to all the educators who use this guide to show children and youth what truth and reconciliation mean and what it will take to walk the miles to get there.
Will I ever be happy? Perhaps not in the sense that the young student meant it, but each day as I take another step toward reconciliation, I take a step toward finding my way back to the joyous, effervescent, mischievous Ojibway child that the Creator intended me to be.
Theodore (Ted) Fontaine is a member of the Sagkeeng Anishinaabe First Nation in Canada and the author of a national bestseller, Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir. He is a regular speaker and media commentator on Indian Residential Schools. He has been called a survivor but sees himself more as a victor.