Sunday, 28 April 2013

Patricia Fontaine

Windsor, Ontario

Abuse takes away everything. 

The Indian Agent came into our home and told my mom and dad,  ”She is old enough to go."  I remember my dad putting up a fight and saying, “These are my children. They don’t have to go anywhere I don’t want them to go.”  My dad was then threatened with going to jail and having the rest of his children taken away. 
Mom and Dad had no voice.  This was the first time I realized fear; I did not know what was happening or where I was going.  I was five years old.  Those first few days are burned into my memory.  I can remember almost everything to that point.  I remember thinking why me? crying, asking my parents, “Why do I have to go?”
The Indian Agent came and accompanied my dad and me to school.  I remember when I got into the boat I turned around to look at my mom and she was standing in the doorway with a baby in her arms.   She was crying.  This is the first thing that pops into my mind when I hear residential school: crying.  What my parents were witnessing was a part of them disappearing little by little.
I think I was there for three years however I’m not sure of the actual length of time.  Whether it was a few months or a couple of years, when you are five years old and separated from your parents and siblings,  time is forever.  It is never-ending. 
On our way to the school I remember checking out the river shores. The minute I got a chance, I was going to run away. I had big plans as to what I was going to do.  Once we arrived at the school we went upstairs and into the parlour. There was a sister waiting there. The Indian Agent left and my dad stayed to answer questions. I just remember being so scared. I felt my stomach tighten; I did not know what was happening.  I was scared to death.  I did not want my dad to go, but I didn’t dare cry. 
We said our goodbyes and my dad left. I have lived with that fear all my life.  To this day I fear the unknown. 
The first thing we did was put my things away.  I had my clothes in a suitcase and I never saw my clothes again.  They took me upstairs to the dormitories and I remember seeing all these toilets, sinks, soap dishes, and toothbrushes.  They stripped me naked, ran a bathtub full of water, put me in the tub and scrubbed me hard.  Years later I was thinking, what were they trying to do, scrub the Indian out of me? Then they dried me off.  I was so embarrassed and ashamed. I was five and did not even know these words.  I was totally naked in front of this sister and she was wiping me off. 
Then the sister put these ugly bloomers on me. I hated those things!  I had to put on a blue cotton uniform, stockings and brown shoes.  Then the sister took me to another room where they proceeded to cut off my hair.  I was devastated because I loved my long hair and my mom always had it in ringlets.  I remember sitting on this high stool and having them chop away; it was an ugly haircut and looking down at my hair on the floor, I started to sob and she slapped me hard.  I was terrified of that sister every time I saw her.  The only sister I liked was Sister St. James.
They were French sisters.  Our music teacher taught us how to sew, and by five years of age I was doing embroidery work.  I still love doing embroidery work.
After they cut my hair, I don’t remember much.  The first night I remember crying.  There might have been eight of us in this one room in these little white beds.  There were several little ones crying, and this sister came in and told us to be quiet and to stop our crying, we were not babies.  But we were our momma’s babies.  I remember being so terrified. 
As a parent, in your mind you can hear your child crying, you can feel it in your heart.  You know when something is wrong when you are connected to your kids.
I remember being in the classroom and I felt so lonely, I missed my family. I just wanted to go home, and that longing was painful.  There was this red plastic car that belonged to one of my brothers and I brought it with me. It was the last thing I grabbed before I went out the door. This became the thing that connected me to my family and the life I had known before.  I carried it in my pocket; it carried my tears and my loneliness.
One day I wasn’t paying attention to what the teacher was saying. I was playing with the car.  I didn’t realize I was making the car sounds until Miss Brooke, the teacher, said “Who’s making that noise?”  Everybody said, “It’s Patricia!” I got the strapping of my life and she took my little red car.  I tried to grab it and she slapped me again.  She put it into her drawer.  I watched where she put the car because I planned on getting it back, but I never did.  It was the one thing I hung onto from home. Mrs. Brooke kept me after class that day and I got it again.  She hit me and by that night I was black and blue, and all puffy.  I was never hit like this before.  At home as a child I got a couple of spankings but not like this.  This was a beating. 
I remember her pulling my hair and telling me to get back in the classroom.  “You are here to learn something. You are here to learn how to read, write and to spell;. You are not here to play with that toy.” I remember just sitting there frozen, scared.  After that day, it was like going through the motions.  I remember not feeling anything, just a void, for the rest of the year I was there.  I hated school, being in that environment, those teachers were mean.  
I was a good reader and speller.
I remember being in the dormitory one night, sitting up wondering what we were being processed for.  We each got a number. That’s when I lost my name, I was no longer Patsy.  My Mom and Dad always called me Patsy, but now I was number 100.  When my name was gone that had quite the impact on me.  When the teachers would come to the play room and they wanted to talk to you they would call your number, clapping their hands.
“Number 100!”  I would get up and go see what she wanted.  Then I would be taken upstairs because I wet my bed again from being scared.  The sister would say, “What’s this again?” and I would get slapped hard.  I had never experienced this from my Mom and Dad.  This was when the new feeling of humiliation came in.
I was made to carry my wet sheets downstairs to show everybody what I did.  This was done to anybody who wet the bed.  How embarrassing!  This is about shame.  This experience impacted my life.  I’m just starting to talk about this and these feelings. 
I got frozen in time.  I always thought there was something wrong with me.  Sometimes I cry but my emotions are still twisted.  I’ll ask myself what is wrong with me.  When something happened to me in my life, I didn’t care, and that scared me. I couldn’t feel compassion because they did not have compassion for us.
We were not allowed to look at the boys at the school or speak our language.  I remember this little girl and I were sitting in a corner. I could speak English a little better than her.  She was talking to me in Indian. She was scared and there were big tears on her face. She wanted to run away.  Then Mrs. Odess caught us.  We were put in a room and had to sit there all day. This was my first experience of isolation.  I’m not sure how long they kept us in there but I never spoke my language again. 
My Dad spoke to us in English at home, but Mom always spoke the language.  Today I can understand what they are talking about, but I have problems answering in the language.  I’m trying to get the language back.  I like going back to M’Chigeeng to visit my cousins; they all speak in Indian.  When they are laughing if I can catch one word, I’ll know what they are talking about.  I miss the language, I miss it everyday, and it brings back the feeling of my Mom and Dad.  At home I’d lie in bed and I could hear them in the kitchen talking and laughing.  I miss that.  This is a longing I cannot describe.  When I hear the language it brings back a flood of memories and feelings.
I got to go home when school was over; I do not remember going home for Christmas or Easter.  Your parents could come and see you.  My parents came twice during that year, my Dad once by himself and then again with my Mom.  My parents seemed like strangers.  I was broken.  When I did go home it did not seem like I was at home.  I felt like a stranger.  I was the oddball. I had other brothers, there were new babies.  I did not even know them. I just felt very different and nothing was the same.  Going back  never felt like home again. 
When I went to school I experienced and witnessed mental, physical, emotional, sexual and cultural abuse by teachers and religious sisters. They stole my language, my name, my hair, my parents, my childhood and my identity.
Before the age of 5, I remember a lot of laughter, we were happy, carefree, and I was quite adventurous.  My Dad worked in the lumber camps.  He would build boats and sell them.  My Mom stayed home and took care of us.  Mom tried to live a traditional life but Dad would not allow her to. 
It had to do with the church.  The church was very involved at Sagamok; this had quite an impact on my parents and caused a lot of discontent between them.  My Mom was from Manitoulin Island, M’Chigeeng First Nation (West Bay) and Dad was born at Wikwemikong.  When I was a year old they transferred over to Sagamok First Nation.
My father was a good man, but what got in his way was alcohol abuse.  He cared about his children.  What tore my Dad apart was the day the Indian Agent came and told him and my Mother tbat I had to go the next day to residential school.  Nobody spoke that day, Mom and Dad were real quiet and I heard them mentioning Shingwauk.  I asked my Mom, “What is Shingwauk?” She said, “Oh, it’s a school, you have to go to school, but I think they are going to be sending you to Spanish.”  Spanish was close to home, but to me it might as well have been a thousand miles away.  We always traveled by boat. We lived across the river in Sagamok.
I remember my Mom and I would go for a walk, and she would tell me about her experiences at the residential school, Spanish.  She told me she felt luckier than my Dad because she was only there for a short time, after she became ill.  They did not want to take care of sick children so they sent them home.  She developed scarlet fever and it damaged her heart.  My Dad went to Spanish to the boys’ school; he was there till grade 8.  He was there for 8 years, a long time.
I remember my Dad telling me a few things about his time at Spanish. It broke my heart. One particular time he answered someone in his language and the Jesuit Brother pulled him aside and slapped him as hard as he could along the side of his face by his ear.  He remembered his ear popping and afterwards he was deaf, on that side of his head.  He remembered something about his wrists being bound, and now I wonder about my dad being sexually abused.  Why would they bind his wrists?  My Dad would not go into that, so it’s just something I suspect.  Eight years, what went on in that school?   I’m just hearing the stories about it in these last few years.  It’s devastating.
Both my parents understood how I felt. We shared a common experience but they felt powerless and they could not help me.  I had no sense of belonging anywhere.  When my Dad found out he had no power over how his children were going to be educated, he disenfranchised from the reserve.  He gave up all rights in order to keep his children and moved off the reserve.  Going to residential schools was like being kidnapped and the ransom was surrendering our native rights. 
After the residential school my Dad moved us off the reserve.  My first school was in Walford, Ontario.  Our first house was by the cemetery. Moving into that house was the happiest day of my life. How excited I was! I did not have to go back to residential school, as long as we lived off the reserve.  They could not come and pick us up or send us off.    My dad could be violent when he was drinking, but I will always remember what he did to keep us together.  His own family turned against him because he gave up the family farm on the reserve.
Later on, I was molested by two teachers and raped when I was 13.  The sexual abuse happened mostly to the native women.  My mother would tell me don’t go near those white men, they will do bad things to you.  An incident happened at school and I could not tell anybody.  I felt so utterly ashamed, I never told anyone. This teacher took me behind an old fashioned furnace that looked like a spider, and did what he wanted to do.  I just stood there crying, ashamed.  I could not tell anyone, I felt so dirty, I never felt like that before.   I use to wish I was one of those white girls, so this would not happen to me.  This was happening to me because I was native. 
The teacher humiliated me.  It seemed like it did something to my learning because I was not able to learn anything after that.  Nothing would stay in my brain. I could read and write, but not do math.  I had to stay behind after school and the teacher took advantage of me.  It is just starting to wear off now.  When I’m working with numbers that memory comes back.
I’m so happy that the government is recognizing the damages and our elders are working with us.  A lot of us, I believe, are still stuck there.  I just do not want to stay stuck so I go to these retreats; where we can talk about the past and not feel silenced.  You can talk, cry, scream and understand each other’s pain.  It is beyond me how the perpetrators could look at themselves in the mirror or sleep at night doing what they did to us.  It has damaged whole generations.
My kids are affected because of the way I was.  My husband drank a lot when we were young. I use to think, “Oh yeah, it’s party time.” I use to look forward to that.  We did not have any parental skills. I raised my kids the way I thought was right.  Instead of talking with them I would hit first and call them names. No one is calling my grandchildren names. 
You are so busy raising your children you do not get a chance to pay attention to what they are doing.  I never had interest in what they were doing, I just raised them.  As long as they were fed, clean and went outside to play.   Not being with my parents for only one year broke me.  One day of residential school could break a child’s spirit. 
After residential school I was very timid and shy.  It’s been my experience that timid children are the ones being taken advantage of because they have been groomed.  With my children I saw the shyness in them. They had no self esteem.  That is what happens when you call them names instead of building them up.  This is what I was doing to my children.  This is what I had learned.   My dad had learned the same thing; we lived in a real violent time.  Children were never thought of as human beings or as a little person with feelings and emotions.  Children were not allowed to speak. 
I still struggle with being raised Catholic as I try to learn my own culture.  I struggle with who I want to be or what I was meant to be.  It is hard to break this mind control, the fear of going to hell. 
I told a member of my family that I’m going to go back to my cultural ways and I am going to pray the way my people prayed.  She said, “Pat, what about Jesus Christ, don’t you believe in him?” I told her, “No, I pray to the Creator now.”  
She got quiet and I said, “What’s wrong?”  Her response was, “I feel like someone in the family just died.” 
After that, I could not sleep for weeks. I was wrestling with the same unworthiness that I felt at the residential school.  I thought oh my God, what did I do, denying Jesus Christ.  Now I am going to go to hell.
One of the elders said to me, “Pat, Jesus Christ -- God created him, he’s the same thing.”  It is trying to connect those things.  Jesus was a tribal man, maybe he was Anishnabe.  
I look at the traditional elders and when they are praying, they are so deep into it.  I have never seen a Christian that deep into prayer.  The elders are totally absorbed, one with the Creator. I want that feeling, but something is blocked.    When you are in nature you see it, you just have to look around and you see the Creator and all his Creation in constant communication.  I feel it every time I come here, (Wharncliffe Farm)2 and I dread going back to the city. 
This is reality; I feel so loved and connected to the earth mother. My spirit whispers, “I am here and here is home.”  Surrounded by the support by all the other Grandmothers, I have never felt that kind of love in my entire life.  But I have longed for it: the hope and the memory of love before I went to residential school. 
Loneliness, fear, anger, abandonment were buried in my heart. I was silent and forgotten.  You can park those feelings somewhere but you know those feelings are going to come back and you have to deal with them.  That is what I am finding out talking with our elders and these other Grandmothers; you have to open up those feelings.  Letting out the bad things. Lots of bad things happened to a lot of us.  I was ashamed of being an Indian, I did not want to be an Indian, and I wished I was not born an Indian.  Meeting the other Grandmothers I found comfort in discovering I was not alone in my shame.
I’m going to be 70 soon and I’m getting involved with my people, the elders.  The future is coming and there is hope.   I’m getting old now and I don’t mind.  The healing is coming.  My daughter is a social worker, my youngest son is an operation manager and paramedic on a reserve and my other daughter Connie has her own business.  The kids are successful.  The next generation is talking about college and university.  My grandchildren are in high school and one of them is going to University.  My life wasn’t such a failure.  Life is good!  
1 - For further information on Spanish Residential School contact the Shingwauk Project           htp://
2 – Wharncliffe Farm –    

No comments:

Post a Comment