Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir. by Theodore Fontaine
Reviewed by Jim Miller
Canadians who advise survivors of Native residential schools to “ just get over it” should read Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools. Author Theodore Fontaine, cousin of the more famous Phil, attended two such institutions in Manitoba over twelve years. He then spent a number of decades living a marginal existence before recovering and living a fulfilling and successful life. His explanation of why his post-school life was initially so aimless and how he managed to rise above it cast a great deal of light on both the residential school experience and its “dark legacy.”
In 1948, the seven-year-old Ted was taken to the Oblate school near the Fort Alexander (Sagkeeng) Reserve by his loving parents. After ten unhappy years he transferred to the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg for high school. In both residential schools, he explains, the students were subjected to authoritarian control and a belittling form of religious indoctrination that undermined their attachment to their own culture and sapped their confidence and will. He tells of being suspicious of his own parents when he returned home during the summer vacation because their language and cultural practices exemplified things he had been warned about at school. At the Fort Alexander institution he was also one of many boys who were victimized sexually by a priest and physically mistreated by both religious and lay personnel. Simultaneously, he became emotionally dependent on and antagonistic towards the staff. He describes the atmosphere in the residential school as an example of Stockholm Syndrome, in which the inmates come to identify with their keepers. As well, he notes: “I developed a deep sense of suspicion and wariness”(156). Eventually, he simply left the Assiniboia Residential School in search of the freedom he craved.
For many years he got by with a succession of short-term jobs before beginning, in 1976, to work for what he refers to as “my people” (151) in his own First Nation and the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. Reconnection with his own culture and the support of a loving, patient wife enabled him to heed the urging of a friend to get counselling to deal with the trauma he carried with him from the residential schools. The final stage of his recovery, described brilliantly, was the successful adjudication of his claim against the government and church for the abuse he had suffered in residential school.
If the key to successful communication is showing, not telling, a story, Ted Fontaine succeeds completely in demonstrating from his own experience how damaging the “dark legacy” of residential school can be. His story’s upbeat ending also serves as an inspirational example of the lucky minority of survivors who, with help and determination, triumph over that malignant inheritance.
Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, A Memoir.
Victoria: Heritage House, 2010 pp. $19.95
BC Studies, no. 172, Winter 2011/12.