Former Kamloops Indian Residential School students threw open the doors Tuesday on a dark past, bravely taking a seat at the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission table to share stories of sexual and physical abuse from a half-century or more ago.
With about 200 people attending, the commission began two days of community hearings, its first visit to Kamloops after four years of crisscrossing the country on a mission to heal deep wounds.
One by one, dreadful stories were told for the first time in public, exposing an institution that was morally corrupt and founded on a misguided belief in racial inferiority.
The late Don Seymour, his testimony recorded three weeks before his death, spoke of two different worlds, his being one of fear, strict control and no freedoms.
"When you're seven years old and have no one to turn to, it is like a secret very deep in your heart, in your soul," he said on video. "The priests and supervisors threatened us. Nobody believed us. It was really a tough time."
One male school supervisor would go into the girl's dorm at night and choose his next victim, said Jeanette Jules, who attended the school as a day scholar starting in 1964.
"The supervisor would shine his flashlight on the girls' faces," she said. "You'd start hearing the girls whispering and covering up their faces because who was he going to choose? Who was he going to take?"
Support workers - health workers in red, cultural workers in green - were on hand to help people through their testimonies. A number of church representatives attended as well.
Bernadette Dodson, a student from 1946 to 1957, said the treatment she endured was horrid. She recalled how a Father Donald took her and another girl into his room and locked the door, telling them to sit on the bed and drink alcohol while he taught them guitar. The priest began removing the other girl's clothes.
"I said, 'Stop it! Don't take her clothes off!' He said, 'You be quiet. You're next.'"
Another girl intervened and halted the abuse by assaulting the priest.
"She was expelled, but she saved my girlfriend and I."
Clutching an eagle feather, Hector MacDonald of the West Pavilion band calmly recalled how his father was threatened with arrest if he didn't send his kids to residential school.
"Golly, I learned a lot here," he reflected, his family at his side. "I learned how to hate. I learned how to steal. I learned how to fight. I learned how to cheat."
MacDonald said his road to healing began when he quit drinking 35 years ago. He credited his wife with teaching him to forgive.
"In all the time I was hating, I didn't know how to raise my kids' kids," he said, telling of the multigenerational effects of systemic and institutionalized abuse.
"My writing is my healing tool," said Dennis Saddleman of the Coldwater reserve before reading from his unpublished work. His visceral poetry captured the emotions of an innocent child, emotions still raw after a half-century.
One poem in particular - Two Riders - described his sexual abuse at the hands of a school official. Moccasin Square Gardens erupted in applause with each recitation.
"That was amazing, incidentally," Justice Murray Sinclair, commission chairman, told him after his testimony. "Those are beautiful pieces of writing you have." Saddleman was encouraged to submit them for inclusion in the TRC archives.
After a welcome song by Sk'lep school students, Sinclair opened the community hearing with a warning to parents.
"We are going to be hearing some very intense stories, so I leave it to you to decide whether your children should hear them You just need to be careful."
He explained that the commission was set up after the residential school settlement agreement was reached, since that precluded court testimony on survivors' experiences. Since then, 6,000 people have provided their stories.
"One of the sad facts about the Indian residential schools in Canada is that they were hidden from people," Sinclair said. "They were hidden not only from the Canadian public, but sometimes from the parents of the children who went to school."
Putting the painful exercise into perspective, Sinclair urged those in attendance to imagine how aboriginal children see the world around them - full of struggles, high suicide rates and street gangs.
"Have we always lived in such despair? Have we always been so impoverished? Why can't we get things together?"
The most important issue that needs to be addressed is to realize what went on, he added.
"And you're going to help Canada do that."
Tuesday's session was not without humour, which helped ease the tension. After her testimony, Dodson lifted her pant legs to show her knees, darkened by kneeling for so long in prayer at the school.
"I'm angry because I could never wear a miniskirt," she said, provoking laughter.
At least 36 children are known to have died while attending the Kamloops school, which operated from 1893 to 1977. T'kemlups students attended as day scholars, who were separated from the residential students, giving rise to resentment and fights.
In collaboration with the Sechelt First Nation, the band continues to seek redress for its day scholars, who were not included in the settlement agreement.