The Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard stories of trauma and abuse during the first day of hearings in Edmonton Thursday, as well as stories of hope, triumph and cultural discovery.
Hundreds of people packed the Shaw Conference to bear witness as survivors recounted their experiences.
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Volunteers were on hand throughout the room to provide support and tissues to people who became emotional listening to the testimony.
Myrtle Calahasin, 81, told the commissioners about the strained relationships in her family, which she believes can be traced back to her time in a residential school.
"I was taken out of the comfortable, loving home and put in a hellhole of ... humanity,” she said.
Second generation speaks out
The commission also heard stories from the children of residential school survivors.
Robert Cardinal, 44, was born in Calgary but moved to Edmonton when he was given up for adoption by his mother who attended a residential school.
"At the time, my mother didn't feel like she could give me a life," he told the hearing. "And she wanted me to have a chance."
A member of the Siksika First Nation, Cardinal says he was adopted into a loving home but still recalls feeling ashamed of his aboriginal background.
"My mom tells me a story of when I was four or five and she found me in the bathtub scrubbing my skin relentlessly –and she asked me what I was doing and I said ‘I don't want to be an Indian. I want to be white,’” he said.
Things got worse when his family moved to Rocky Mountain House where he experienced racism and jokes that turned his name into anger.
Alcoholism and drug abuse followed. Cardinal dropped out of school, ended up on the street and eventually was hospitalized for severe depression.
'It's in your blood. It's innately in you'
"People think, well, if you're adopted into a decent home and you're given a decent upbringing you'll be fine but it just isn't true,” he told the hearing.
“That inter-generational trauma is in your DNA. It's in your blood. It's innately in you. That quest for who you are."
Things turned around for Cardinal when he received addictions treatment at the Poundmakers Lodge in St. Albert.
There, he learned about his culture – the key to turning everything around in his life.
University, marriage and fatherhood followed. Today Cardinal works an astronomer with the Canadian Space Agency.
“I've discovered two comets, a near-earth asteroid,” he said.
“I build telescopes and computers and a good mentor of mine who has found 700 asteroids and he said, ‘Rob, why don't we name one for your nation?’
“And he gifted me that asteroid and I wrote the citation and there's a rock in space named Siksika."
Last year, Cardinal connected with his birth family. He says this helped him learn who he is.
He now encourages others to reconnect with their families and learn about their culture because that is what he believes leads to true healing.