Charley Chisaakey, Rene Natammak, Eric Kolay and S. Didzena ride their bikes and wagons at Assumption Residential School in June 1959.


Charley Chisaakey, Rene Natammak, Eric Kolay and S. Didzena ride their bikes and wagons at Assumption Residential School in June 1959.

February 17, 2014

Young Theodore Fontaine recalls skipping along the road on his way to his first year at an Indian residential school near his Fort Alexander Reserve in eastern Manitoba.

The seven-year-old boy was looking forward to becoming a "school kid," looking forward to developing the ability to read those English-language comic books that so entranced him.

"Walking with Mom and Dad on that life-changing day in September 1948, I remember no confusion, only joy and innocence on a trek that seems now to have taken longer than it actually did," he wrote in his book Broken Circle: The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools.

"Squirrels chattered at us and birds screeched disapproval at our intrusion."


Fontaine's mom had a strong Catholic faith and a desire that her son would have a successful life away from the reserve. The residential school was the way to set him on that path as well as helping him develop his own faith.

His own previous experiences with priests and nuns had been non-threatening, pleasant even. But when he arrived in the parlour of the residential school, he had a new experience.

"For the first time in my life, I felt trapped," he wrote. "I started to whimper, not understanding why but sensing that something awful was about to happen to me."

Then, his parents quickly left the parlour, leaving him alone with the priest and two of his cousins who were students at the school.

"I don't recall anything else from that moment other than feelings of panic, desperation, anger and hopelessness," he said. The priest disappeared into his office, and Theodore's cousins ushered him into life in the school.

"I twisted and turned, kicked and yelled, and even tried to bite as I was practically dragged down the hall."

He felt abandoned by his family, and his trust in his parents was shattered.

"It would take me years to understand that trust goes hand in hand with understanding why a loved one does things. Sometimes broken trust never heals."

Fontaine's experience was far from unusual. For decades, aboriginal children were taken from their families, sometimes forcibly, more often with their parents' approval. Either way, it meant a severe rupture in family life.

For Canada's federal government and often for the churches that ran the schools, the disruption in family life was deliberate, a crucial part of a policy to "kill the Indian" in the child.

In the 19th century, the government had run day schools for native children. Soon, it realized that to educate the children properly, they would have to be separated from their families. Indian people were, according to the government, sunk in "ignorance, superstition and helplessness" and the aboriginal person needed to be elevated "from his condition of savagery."

In the day schools, children were "extremely irregular in their attendance." Nicholas Flood Davin, the author of an 1879 report calling for residential schools, said in day schools "the influence of the wigwam was stronger than the influence of the school."

For the Rev. J.W. Sims, "It's very difficult to keep Indian children in subordination."

Lawrence Vankoughnet, deputy superintendent general of Indian Affairs under Prime Minister John A. MacDonald, sought the full integration of native people into white society. He believed "the intellectual emancipation of the Indian" could only be accomplished through education.


Day schools were no solution in Vankoughnet's view: The children unswervingly "followed the terrible example set them by their parents."

In Catholic social teaching, the family is called "the vital cell of society" and has priority over society and the state. Strong families are essential to helping children form values and to become stable in their commitments.

"It is in this cradle of life and love that people are born and grow," says the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (212). "In the climate of natural affection which unites the members of a family unit, persons are recognized and learn responsibility in the wholeness of their personhood."

However, Archbishop Louis Philip Langevin, archbishop of St. Boniface, Man., in the early 20th century, once wrote that it was important that native children be "caught young to be saved from what is on the whole the degenerating influence of their home environment."


Father Albert Lacombe, founder of the industrial school at High River, opposed both summer holidays at the school and visits from parents "because their intercourse and influence demoralize the pupils very much."

That was not quite the universal policy at Catholic-run residential schools.

Father Joseph Hugonard, long-time principal at the Qu'Appelle Industrial School, perhaps the most successful of the Catholic schools – if any of them can be called successful – encouraged family visits. He found that it was the best way to convince reluctant parents to send their children to the school.

Nevertheless, the removal of aboriginal children from their families was likely the most destructive aspect of residential schools.


Like Theodore Fontaine, children were traumatized at being taken away from their homes and families and placed in an institutional setting that was profoundly different than anything in their own culture or background.

The children lost the loving care of their parents and the relatively unstructured life on the reserve, becoming essentially wards of the state and the Church. Parents, meanwhile, lost the help that their children provided around the home.

Meanwhile, the quality of the education provided in the schools was consistently low. Benefits to the students were sometimes hard to find.

(Some of the information in this story comes from A National Crime by John Milloy and Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indian and the Metis by Raymond Huel.)