An Algonquin man from West Quebec who shared his memories of being sent away to residential school before the age of 4 said he is still trying to piece together what happened to him a half century ago .

"This is the child I never knew," he told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, holding up a black-and-white photo of a child in his aunt's arms. "It's me."

Decontie was among the first to testify when the commission held its first day of hearings in Montreal on Thursday.

He said he was sent to a residential school near Lac St-Jean, far from his Algonquin community near Maniwaki.

Language lost

He said when he returned home, he could no longer speak his native language.

When his aunt spoke to him, he said that he responded to her in French, "I don't understand."

"Basically the whole family — my uncles, my aunts, my cousins — they kind of distanced themselves from me, because I was like a stranger," he said.

Decontie said he was sexually and physically abused at school, but he didn't breathe of word of it  to anyone, not even his wife.

"I kept silent for 50 years," he said.

No longer.

"I want to send a message," Decontie said. "There is a history, a dark history.  We need to bring it out."

The laws 'allowed it to happen'

Some residential school survivors struggled to describe what had happened to them as children, but they said explaining it out loud is an important step in coming to terms with their past.

"All of this happened legally," said co-commission chair Marie Wilson, calling that a cautionary tale for all Canadians. "It all happened because the laws of the country allowed it to happen."

"It happened because the sanctioned policy positions at the very highest levels — deputy ministers, ministers and prime ministers — allowed it to happen."

Decontie said his personal healing process is far from over, but after testifying before the commission he got some relief — and heartfelt applause for his courage.

"When I walked out, the tears came out," he explained later. "I couldn't help it, after all those years of silence, the tears had to come out."

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