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High School

Ojibway man bullied, robbed of his culture by residential school priest, nuns



Excerpt from Broken Circle, The Dark Legacy of Indian Residential Schools, by Theodore Niizhotay Fontaine. The book was originally published in 2010, but a new commemorative edition is being re-released, posthumously, this month in recognition of Fontaine’s significant reconciliation efforts in Canada. A book launch will be held on May 31 at McNally Robinson.

In my years of self-examination and therapy, I’ve discovered that confronting my early experiences has corrected some malfunctions in me. Thankfully, one thing that no longer plagues me is a fear of darkness. For about 40 years, I was unable to sleep or be in complete darkness. I’d have to have light filtering through a door or a blind. This reaction stemmed from my earliest days at residential school.




<p> Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press </p>
<p> Theodore Niizhotay Fontaine </p>
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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Theodore Niizhotay Fontaine

Once when we were all in the playroom, I was playing on the floor with several friends, reliving a picture show we’d seen at movie night. I was startedled when Sister S., the supervisor that day, almost knocked me on my back as she wrapped her powerful, bony arm around mine. 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. She yelled that she’d wash out my mouth with soap but instead dragged me to where she’d been sitting. I was shoved into a closet behind her chair. It was under the stairs leading to the second floor and was used to store brooms and other cleaning materials.

I don’t remember how long I was in there, but it seemed like an eternity. I was desperate. I tried to sit up but banged my head on the overhead stairs. I tried to see the light under the door. Sister S. hissed at me to be quiet. At least her crackly voice reassured me that someone was nearby. I sobbed for a while, to no avail. Eventually she let me out. Her first word was “Tiens! (Take that!)” Followed by a warning not to speak my “savage” language.

That is the experience that for years made it impossible for me to be without some light. Initially my counselor and I thought my fear had been caused by a predator perhaps having wandered around the dormitory at night. That was true, too, but it was the closet experience that scarred me. I can now sleep in complete darkness.



As a young boy I spoke only Ojibway. I did know certain things in English from hearing them said by others; I remember taking great pleasure in calling one of the big boys, a cousin of mine, a “son of a bitch.” I now pray that his mother and mine understood my ignorance at the time and forgave me.

My education in English was long and tedious, and the lessons sometimes very surprising. Spending time on our reserve and hearing Ojibway had allowed the priests and others in authority to learn some of our language and sometimes understand the gist of our conversations. The nuns, in particular, would listen intently when we whispered and talked in Ojibway. They’d pretend not to hear or understand us so as to catch us saying something they didn’t like. I thought then that this was one of the reasons we couldn’t speak our language. I later learned that they thought it was a language of savages and not created by God.

I remember a time when a nun’s ears were on high alert. I think we were in the Grade 3 or 4 classroom. One of the good nuns was the teacher we called Pa-kok-achi-chan— “baseball nose” —as the tip of her nose looked like a baseball. A characteristic of Ojibway culture is that individuals are often known by prominent features or characteristics and get nicknames because of them. These sticks for a lifetime, and although they may sound uncomplimentary, they’re personal and accepted without shame except when bestowed with vengeance.




<p> Heritage House Publishing Inc. </p>
<p> Fontaine and his classmates. </p>
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Heritage House Publishing Inc.

Fontaine and his classmates.

Anyway, I used a new word to describe her. I don’t know what consequences I’d have had to endure if the more combative Sister S. had been the target of my smart-aleck remark. I presume I reacted to some order such as “pull up your pants” or “wipe your dirty nose” or “don’t you know how to tie your shoelaces yet?” In any case, as the nun walked away, I whispered, or so I thought, to a friend, “Kitchi mungi cheet.” “Big arse” wasn’t very complimentary, but the habits nuns wore were very bulky and made them look huge – perhaps in order to scare us. Some nuns and staff were very sensitive about how they looked, so sometimes their reactions to innocent comments were unwarranted and had serious consequences.

In this instance, we were well into our lesson when there was a short, sharp rap on the door. In came Father R., the principal. He was known as a tough priest who often sat at the back of the church during Mass to hear confessions. This day, he walked boldly into the classroom and asked if I was there. I let the nun answer, and he asked me to raise my hand. He knew I was there, so his barging in and asking for me was intended to terrify me and everyone else. It reminded us that he was the boss and it was unwise to upset him.

I meekly raised a wavering hand and slid down to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. Father R. said, “I want you to come to my office at recess,” and walked out. Everyone turned and stared, smiled or smirked at me, because they knew it couldn’t be good. It was never good when you were called to the principal’s office. Mostly it was when you were in trouble or there was news of some catastrophe in the family.




<p> Heritage House Publishing Inc. </p>
<p> Fontaine’s residential school classroom in 1949. </p>
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Heritage House Publishing Inc.

Fontaine’s residential school classroom in 1949.

For the next hour, I didn’t hear a thing or acknowledge questioning stares. I thought I was going to be sick. Tick, tock, tick, tock – the hammering of the clock grew louder as it wound down toward recess. Maybe I’d trip and break a leg on the way to the office.

I don’t remember the conversation or full punishment. I’ve still blocked that from my mind, but I know I received some lashes from Father R. for using bad language about our good sisters.

Most priests and nuns used leather straps that the school’s farmer had cut from pieces of tractor belts. They were about six inches long and three inches wide, and they hurt!

I remember being terrified that day, crying and also wanting to hurt Father R. somehow. I was sent back to class after I’d searched for the word “arse” in a couple of dictionaries in Father R.’s office. The search was long and tedious and took most of what was left of regular class time. When it came time for dismissal for the day, when we usually had time to play before supper, Father R. reappeared and asked me to stand with him while he spoke to the class. He said that I couldn’t find the word in the dictionary and explained that what I’d meant was “ass,” not “arse.” I was quivering as we stood there. He told everyone that they couldn’t leave until I’d completed my punishment for having used a word in a way that Catholics couldn’t understand.

The blackboards ran the length of the front wall of the classroom and half the length of the side wall. I wasn’t very popular as I began writing “I will never use the word arse again,” filling the front and side blackboards. Sister Pa-kok-achi-chan erased a line once or twice when she thought my writing was too big. We almost missed the supper bell. I’d robbed my classmates of one of our favorite times of day. My guilt was enormous. And the fact that I hadn’t learned yet to say genuinely “I’m sorry” provoked further hostility in my classmates. The incident didn’t teach me respect, but it did make me angry at and distrustful of the priest. I didn’t blame the nun for the punishment because what I had called her was what I saw and she still had a mungi cheet.

I know now that the stress of incidents like these caused me to stop speaking Ojibway. I also thereafter was never late for anything, having felt so guilty for causing my classmates to miss their play before supper.

In 1984, a federal study predicted that by the year 2000, Canada would have only three out of 53 Aboriginal languages ​​remaining. The rest were reported to be endangered or verging on extinction. These languages ​​are unique to Canada and are the main means by which culture, identity and spirituality are articulated, shared and passed on to successive generations. Later, it was also reported that one of the Six Nations languages, Tuscarora, was no longer spoken or written in Canada. Yet in 2010, the strength with which Canada’s original languages ​​are flourishing highlights the strength, resolve and emerging control of First Nations people in this area.


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