British Columbia

Emotional statement opens Truth and Reconciliation hearings in Victoria

Survivors of Canada's residential school system are gathering in Victoria for two days of hearings by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission Commissioner, Chief Warren Littlechild, looks on from behind a First Nation's bentwood box during a commission forum in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday March 3, 2011. (Darryl Dick/CP)

A top B.C. native leader broke down in tears today during his opening remarks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Victoria on Friday.

First Nations Summit Grand Chief Ed John could barely finish his remarks as he looked out into the audience and said he's still haunted by the residential school experience.

John wiped away tears and didn't start speaking again until other aboriginal leaders joined him on stage to offer support.

He says he spent seven years in a northern B.C. residential school and it wasn't until he heard others speak about their own school experiences that he fully came to understand the burden the school placed on his life.

I want to release what's inside of me — our fear our anger, our pain. And I want Canada to know why we are the way we are today.

As many as 2,000 survivors of Canada's residential school system and their families are expected to attend the two-day event, will include traditional ceremonies and survivor gatherings, as well as formal statements and an education day for the public.

The Victoria regional hearings wrap up a series of community visits on Vancouver Island by the three member commission in February and March and pave the way for a national event set for B.C. in September, 2013.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was created to inform all Canadians about almost a century of enforced residential schooling of aboriginals -- and offers survivors, their families, former teachers and anyone who worked in the schools to share their thoughts about the facilities.

Survivors ready to talk

Before the hearing began Alice George, who attended the Port Alberni Residential School told CBC News the experience damaged her, but she hopes these hearings will help her.

"I've always been scared and I still am scared, but I'm starting to speak out a lot better and more and I want it better for me and my grandchildren and my kids, so they can have a little bit of a better life, so I think this will help to heal a lot," said George.

School survivor Melvin Good drew a direct line between his drinking, violent behaviour and dysfunction as a parent and husband to the fact he spent his childhood as a student at the Port Alberni Residential School in the 1960s.

"I'm a survivor daily, like an alcoholic. It's day by day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. I don't know how I'm going to be."

Good told CBC News there are two reasons he's decided to tell his story at the hearings in Victoria.

"I want to release what's inside of me — our fear our anger, our pain. And I want Canada to know why we are the way we are today."

That's also the commission's mandate, but its director of statement gathering, Ry Moran says it won't be realized if it's one-sided.

"Reconciliation cannot be achieved without the support and interest of non-aboriginal people."

And that's why the two days of hearings at the Victoria Conference Centre are open to the public and also include interactive displays and cultural programs.




With files from Lisa Cordasco and The Canadian Press