The snub hurt Bernard's father deeply, as did his employer's decision to fire him from a foreman's job because company policy suddenly required that he have a high-school diploma. "He said his children would never face the humiliation he did," Bernard remembers of his father, who rarely spoke of their native ancestry after that.
"The indifference to getting ahead bothered me. There was so much welfare. It was a way of life. I always knew I'd have to leave if I was to get anywhere.”
In 1971, the family returned to the Madawaska Maliseet First Nation - their tiny reserve of 250 outside Edmunston, a mill town in northwestern New Brunswick. Bernard was 10, and his mother Margaret was determined to rekindle his heritage. She started a native crafts shop and later ran for the band chief's job, which through marriage she had the right to seek. And she won.
One of her first acts was to sue the Department of Indian Affairs over a land lease. But she forgot one of the basic rules of politics: take care of your supporters. Failing to allocate new housing to those who voted for her, Bernard says, she failed to win a second term.
The incessant demands for patronage turned the young Bernard off reserve life for good. "The indifference to getting ahead bothered me. There was so much welfare. It was a way of life. I always knew I'd have to leave if I was to get anywhere."
However, finding a place in the other society wasn't easy. Growing up, he was taunted at school by the Edmunston kids, who often greeted the reserve bus with mock warpath sounds. One teacher, upon seeing a rip in his textbook, called him "nothing but a savage."
Despite such prejudice, one of his sisters finished law school. Another completed university and went on to a senior position in the federal government.
When he arrived at the University of New Brunswick, Bernard also expected to study law - the accepted native avenue to a respectable job. Then, for a second-year calculus course, he bought a Tandy programmable calculator. "Man, oh man, did I get hooked," he says. His math grade went from C+ to A, and he was soon spending most of his time in the computer centre - "down there at midnight with all the Chinese," he says, laughing at his own ethnic stereotype.
Having left the reserve and Edmunston behind, he did not realize at first how much discrimination he had been spared by having his mother's skin colour and his father's anglo name. With no reserve school bus, no one knew his roots, or seemed to care. In the dining hall, he usually sat with a group of non-native students, and had little problem finding an apartment to rent.
Meanwhile, darker-skinned native classmates were routinely turned away by landlords and kept to themselves in the dining hall. Once, when Bernard tried to join them, "they all stared at me, and one said I didn't have the right to sit there because I didn't face the same bias they did."
After university, he went on to a comfortable and secure government job, in computers with Health Canada and then Indian Affairs. He also married a woman of Ukrainian-Canadian descent, and for a time began to wonder if he was indeed native.
That was before his government job took him to some of the country's remotest reserves, where, for the first time, he witnessed the deep poverty and despair of Canada's first nations. He still remembers asking in one reserve's health centre why there was a bag of empty nail-polish bottles. "In my naiveté, I asked, `Why are these kids doing this? Why don't they have jobs?' "
Later, whenever he encountered such scenes on reserves, he thought of his own three children - as Maliseet as he and yet consumed by computer games and Pokémon - and he wondered if their new technological world could provide a bridge.
He was also becoming intrigued by another facet of mainstream life, in the legions of consultants and corporate salesmen parading through his government office making small fortunes from new technologies. It was enough to make him quit his public-service job to launch his own aboriginal technology company.
But soon he met Foote, who had a better idea. The Ottawa entrepreneur offered Bernard a job in the most uncertain, unregimented and egalitarian environment a modern Maliseet could imagine.