Montreal–When Canon Jean Marie Bonnard toured the Anglican-run La Tuque Indian Residential School shortly before he became its principal, he noticed an odd-looking object in an office.
“I didn’t know what it was, so I asked, ‘What is this?’ ” recalled Fr. Bonnard. He was told, “That’s a strap.”
“What’s a strap for?” he asked.
“You don’t know? We strap the children.”
“That’s horrible!” Fr. Bonnard said. “I’ll never do anything like that.”
And, said Fr. Bonnard, he never did.
An end to strapping was what former students told Fr. Bonnard they remembered the most about his time as principal and later administrator at La Tuque from 1968 until the school closed in 1978.
Fr. Bonnard, who will be 85 in July, was reunited with some La Tuque students when he participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada’s Quebec national event, April 24 to 27. Created as part of the 2007 revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the TRC has a mandate to provide former students and their families and communities an opportunity to share the impact of the schools on their lives.
Fr. Bonnard’s hair is now snowy white and he walks with the aid of a cane, but students easily recognized him as he sat at a table, looking through binders of photographs of former students. The photographs were displayed by the General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada.
“It’s interesting that when [students] mention their names, I can picture them when they were kids,” said Fr. Bonnard in an interview. “Some are now married, are parents, grandparents, great-grandparents.”
He had already seen some of them at a 2005 conference, “Beyond the Residential Schools,” when former students and staff came together. At that time, tensions about the abuses and impact of residential schools still ran high, and Fr. Bonnard felt some apprehension about going. “I was on the other side of the fence,” he said. Instead, he was amazed at the reception he received from the former students. “They embraced me; some said, ‘We won’t let you go. There’s room for you in the old folks’ home in Mistissini.’ ” Mistissini is one of the largest reserves named after one of the largest lakes in Quebec.
When Fr. Bonnard first told his bishop in the diocese of Keewatin that he wanted to work at a residential school, he was met with horrified disbelief. Why would he want to work in a place that had a “bad reputation?” the bishop asked.
“But I said, ‘I do feel that I can do something better…I feel I can lessen some of the evils if I go there,’ ” replied Fr. Bonnard. At that time he had been teaching native children on the reserve and he knew their parents quite well. Before going to La Tuque, Bonnard had been principal-in-charge at the Pelican School, Sioux Lookout, for six months between 1959 to 1960.
When he came to La Tuque, Fr. Bonnard said he not only put an end to strapping, he also allowed children to grow their hair long. “Their hair was always cut short and they hated that,” he said. He also instructed staff to ask what the children would rather have for meals. “So we changed up the menu, things like that.”
Fr. Bonnard, who could speak some Cree, also tried to teach some of the children syllabics. “The children were getting letters in Cree from home and they couldn’t read them. I had to read them the letters,” he said.
They also organized pow wows and Halloween parties, which parents were invited to attend. One of the students later told Fr. Bonnard, “I never forgot when I asked if my parents could visit me and you said yes, because before it wasn’t allowed.”
The boys, in particular, remembered how Fr. Bonnard took their peewee hockey team to the Swiss games in 1974. “They remembered the wonderful reception they got in town,” said Bonnard.
The staff thought Fr. Bonnard was “far too lenient” with the children, but Bonnard felt that since they were far away from home, at the least they deserved an atmosphere that seemed “more like a family.” He added: “Hopefully, it was going to be a happier place for the children, even if they were going to be away from home, away from their culture, away from their language.”
Fr. Bonnard said he doesn’t deny that bad things happened in some schools. But, he said, “I don’t think they were the rule.” While he was at La Tuque, he said, the students were not forbidden to speak their language; rather, they were encouraged to speak their language because their parents were noticing that when they got home, they spoke Cree “like a baby.” He acknowledged that students, by being sent to the school, weren’t in contact with their own people and so their vocabulary became limited.
“I knew it was a bad system, but I thought I could make it less objectionable,” he said. There was, however, a limit to what he could do. “There were still policies from Indian Affairs that I had to follow.”
Fr. Bonnard said he hadn’t intended to come to the Quebec event but had been told that several La Tuque students had asked if he would be there because they wanted to see him again. “So this is why I came,” said Bonnard, who now lives in Kingston, Ont.
On one occasion, Fr. Bonnard sat down with Celina Watachee, whose mother, Emma Coonishish-coon, attended La Tuque from 1963 to 1969. She was looking for some photographs of her mother and Bonnard pointed to one of Coonishish-coon dancing on the front row. “It was an honour to meet Fr. Bonnard,” said Watachee in an interview. “I remember my mom mentioning him a lot of times. She remembers that before Fr. Bonnard, things were a bit harsher; they had a strap. When he came, things changed. There were more activities in terms of sports for the students.”
What does Fr. Bonnard remember most about his time at La Tuque? “When I would say good night to the students,” he said.
On Valentine’s Day 2006, Fr. Bonnard said he received an unexpected surprise. It was a faxed “thank you” list from a student who had promised to write him a letter a while back. The student had requested his wife, who worked for a school board, to type his list, and when others read it, they wanted to sign it as well. “It is a treasure,” said Fr. Bonnard, his eyes sparkling.
Another treasure is a photograph given to him at the 2006 reunion. The students had taken a picture of him and presented it to him at the local gymnasium in Mistissini, along with the message, written in English and in Cree, “Thank you for your wisdom. Thank you for your patience. Thank you for your love.”
To Fr. Bonnard, it meant that, perhaps, “I was not too far wrong.”
To watch some videos from the Quebec national event, click here.