The grand chief of the First Nations Summit said testimony he heard at Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Inuvik, N.W.T., about four years ago made him realize he was a participant in an insidious government-sanctioned policy to destroy his heritage.
"I was up in an Inuit community and I'm listening to survivors talk over a period of three or four days and it took me a year to come to grips with that and understand it within the context of myself," he said in an interview.
"There was a deliberate attempt and policy on the part of the federal government to kill the Indian in us. To kill our languages, to destroy the connections with our families."
The long-awaited report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Canada's residential school system was released Tuesday, makes 94 broad recommendations and concludes it was a system of cultural genocide.
John, who spent seven years in the Roman Catholic school in Fraser Lake, B.C., said the report signals a moment in history for Canadians to reconsider the ingrained perceptions and knowledge they have about aboriginal peoples in Canada.
"These are really complex issues we have, but the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and its recommendations point to the overwhelming evidence for really systemic rethinking of how we deal with children, family issues, education issues and justice-related issues," John said.
He said too many aboriginal children are in government care and too few Canadians, especially school children, are aware of the aboriginal residential school experience.
"You might want to learn about Prince Charles and the Queen, that's good, but you should also want to know about your own history in this province, and we don't see enough of that in terms of the relationships between First Nations and the public," he said.
University of Victoria Anthropologist Andrea Walsh said recently discovered paintings made by survivors of the notorious Alberni Residential School on Vancouver Island are making Canadian history.
Alberni dorm supervisor Arthur Henry Plint pleaded guilty to 18 charges of indecent assault and was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 1995. B.C. Supreme Court Judge Douglas Hogarth described Plint as a sexual terrorist and the residential school system as a form of institutionalized pedophilia.
Walsh said the artwork, which dates back to 1958 when some of the students were six years old, will become part of a residential school exhibit at the Museum of History in Ottawa in 2017.
Walsh said about two dozen Alberni school survivors were in Ottawa to participate in ceremonies connected to the release of the Truth and Reconciliation report.
Years ago, Port Alberni artist Robert Aller gave the students painting lessons and their long-lost creations were discovered when his artwork was donated to UVic when he died.
"He would bring in paints to let the children paint whatever they want," said Walsh. "What emerged when he gave the children that amount of freedom were all these amazing images that came truly from within. You see images of fishing boats, images of very specific locations from their home territories, beaches particularly, and you see people, actual relatives."
Vancouver Island residential school survivor Robert Joseph said he viewed the report as the start of what should be a gentle move forward to building relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Canada.
Joseph said he spent 13 years at the church-run St. Michael's Residential School at Alert Bay.
The school was the recent site of a symbolic demolition ceremony.