VICTORIA - One of British Columbia's most prominent aboriginal leaders wept uncontrollably Friday as he told Canada's truth and reconciliation commission that he never fully realized the impact of Indian residential schools on his life until he heard survivors recount their own experiences at the hearings.
Grand Chief Ed John, leader of the First Nations Summit, said the stories he heard while the commission was in Inuvik, N.W.T., tore open wounds he never realized were there.
"I never realized the depth of my own story until I heard their stories," said John, who stood back from the podium, tried to start speaking again, but couldn't as the tears flowed.
"It haunts me."
John, who is the leader of B.C.'s largest aboriginal organization, spoke at the opening of the commission's two-day stop in Victoria, where as many as 2,000 survivors and their families are expected to attend.
The gathering will include traditional ceremonies and survivor gatherings, as well as formal statements as the commission pursues its mandate of helping survivors heal and creating a complete historical record of Canada's Indian residential school system.
The commission's interim report, published in February, found Canadians know very little about aboriginal people and residential schools, and recommended schools teach about the physical and sexual abuse and neglect suffered at the schools.
John, who grew up in a First Nation near Prince George, B.C., said he spent seven years of his youth at the Roman Catholic Lejac Residential School at Fraser Lake. He said he remembered looking at the mountains and thinking about running away to his home, but he never did.
Three boys ran away once, but their frozen bodies were found nearby, he recalled.
John said the burden of the residential school system is having to come to terms with being part of a government and church system that was designed to erase aboriginal culture, spirit and way of life.
"That is why this is a mixed up place for many of us, this place we have to talk about," he said.
"We were supposed to kill our languages, our cultures. We were that vehicle for which this was supposed to happen. That's the burden we have to bear. It was through us that our languages were denied. But we were children and we didn't know."
He said residential school survivors are living evidence of a system designed to assimilate aboriginals.
"We are the evidence of that truth. It was through us we were supposed to forget who were are."
"Thank God, it didn't happen," John said, receiving a standing ovation that brought on a pounding of drums while others pointed eagle feathers to the skies.
Wiping away tears, he apologized for "sounding like a bit of a blathering idiot up here."
John paid tribute to B.C. aboriginals who testified in court about the abuse they endured at residential schools.
One of those cases involved former school dormitory supervisor Arthur Henry Plint, which John prompted governments and churches to legally accept their responsibility for the horrors of the residential school system.
Plint pleaded guilty in March 1995 to 18 counts of indecent assault dating from 1948 to 1953 and from 1963 to 1968. He worked at the Alberni Indian Residential School, which was run by the United Church.
At the age of 77, was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
In the court's ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Douglas Hogarth described Plint a sexual terrorist and described the Indian residential school system as "a form of institutionalized pedophilia."
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo, who is attending the hearings, said John's opening remarks captured the conflicting emotions many aboriginals carrying with them from the residential school experience.
He said the truth and reconciliation commission hearings offer a rich opportunity to recapture an important part of a shared Canadian legacy.
"We find ourselves at a moment where we can do nothing less than tell the full truth and make sure that every man, woman and child in his country has an opportunity to learn about it," said Atleo.