John Sinclair cannot describe what happened in residential schools, but he knows the impact.
Sinclair’s grandmother was taken from her family and sent to a government-mandated residential school in Alberta.
On Thursday, the first day of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) of Canada hearing at Red Deer College, Sinclair, who lives in Trochu, opened his heart.
The community event is the first of five to be held in Alberta this summer, leading up to a national event next March in Edmonton. The public hearings allow those affected by Indian residential schools to share with the commission and to inform members of the public about a dark episode in Canada’s past.
Sinclair said he was raised by his grandparents because his 15-year-old mother did not want to raise him.
Sinclair, 58, said most of his life has been plagued by alcoholism, drugs, broken relationships and violence. He served time in jail and only began turning his life around and learning about his culture in 1990.
He said the impacts are so far reaching that it is impossible to determine the loss because there is so much grief that hasn’t been dealt with.
While telling his truth stirred up his emotions, Sinclair said he wanted to get the message across that throwing money at a problem does not help.
“Our jails are filling up with indigenous people because the healing isn’t happening,” said Sinclair.
A former residential school teacher in Morley, David Gilchrist wept openly, as did many who shared and listened at one of the public panels on Thursday.
Gilchrist said he has carried a burden for an act that has weighed on his conscience for 60 years. He used the strap on two young students. He asked forgiveness from the family of two boys.
When the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was reached, the commission was created.
Muriel Stanley Venne, vice-president of Remembering the Children Society and the host of the event, said it is important to have these stories shared and written into history.
“I was told if you didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen,” said Venne. “It is extremely important that we document. We think about how the people exist and recognize their worth.”
Venne said she is thankful for the apology from Prime Minister Stephen Harper on June 11, 2008, and the process now in place.
“That is monumental,” said Venne. “It hasn’t solved the problem yet but it is absolutely wonderful.”
Gordon Williams, a member of the TRC Survivor Committee, said there is always hope that the story of residential schools eventually will become part of the education curriculum.
“That way it becomes a process of understanding rather than these events that focus on it specifically,” said Williams.
Eugene Arcand, a Cree from the Muskeg Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan, said avoiding this time in history is not good for anyone. He says it has to be acknowledged and studied to understand the residual effects of residential schools that affect society today.
He said the cycle of incarceration and children in care needs to stop and he hopes it ends in his lifetime.
“We have to respect the principles of co-existence, and co-existence won’t take us long if we understand the impacts of residential schools,” said Arcand. “Because they impact us today. It impacts me as a residential school survivor. My children are impacted. My grandchildren were impacted. I want it stopped with my grandchildren.”
The commission, which is open to the public, continues today at Red Deer College. For a full list of events and to listen to live streaming panels, go to www.trc.ca.