There were tears and anger, but also hope and even some laughter as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard from residential-school survivors Wednesday in a central Alberta community wracked by the drug trade and deadly gang violence.
The hearings in Hobbema were held at the site of the former Ermineskin residential school, which opened in 1894 and by 1980 was the largest Indian school in Canada.
Former student Flora Northwest told the commission of a happy childhood ruined by religious officials, who took her from her parents when she was just a little girl.
"I had a beautiful childhood where I used to wake up to the sound of the drum with my grandfather," she said. "There was a lot of harmony until the day when I was taken."
At the school, her long black hair was cut off and she was forced to speak English, even though she didn't know the language. She said she was laughed at, ridiculed for who she was. She was strapped for speaking Cree and witnessed much worse abuse, she said.
"Your spirit was taken away. How I survived is beyond me. How I made it, I don't think I will ever remember that."
She said the school destroyed her ability to parent her own children later in life. "I was Mother Superior when I was raising them. From morning to night, I used to yell and them and they were the ones – they became victims because of who I was."
Chris Frenchman's voice broke as he told the commission that he questions why he is still alive when so many of his fellow students aren't.
"I am 56 years old and up to this day I ask myself, why am I alive today – without, my friends, brothers, sisters? We were once happy, a happy home," he recalled, his story punctuated by emotional pauses.
"I don't hate anybody," he continued. "I just have to live with it. That's the only thing that makes me feel better. Not to think about it mad."
Laurelle White was the last of four generations in her family to be sent to a residential school. She wept as she explained how she still doesn't understand why her culture was attacked.
"What did we do other than be brown, other than have a different tradition, a different culture, have a different outlook on life?" she asked, her voice rising with anger.
"What did we do that was so wrong – that they could hate us so much, to the point of death, to the point of wanting to beat the heck out of us, to get rid of us? To deny us?"
But amidst all the sorrow and anger Wednesday, there was also humour.
Mary Stoney, a student in the 1940s, said the schools were good for some things.
"I know how to peel potatoes, professionally, too," she quipped, prompting laughter in the gallery. "I learned to make my bed, and I also know how to clean the corners pretty good too."
The commission is in Hobbema for two days of public hearings.
The four reserves in the area have been beset for years by shootings and stabbings as rival gangs fight over drugs. More than half of the 14,000 people who live there are under 18 years old.
Earlier this year, three young gang members were sentenced for manslaughter in the death of five-year-old Ethan Yellowbird, who was hit, as he slept, by a bullet fired through the wall of his home.
RCMP have said there appears to be more interest in the community in stopping the gangs, but have added there is no quick or easy solution to the problem.
Hearing participant Brian Lee thanked the commission for coming.
"I am glad that the commission is here to listen to our community members speak about their experiences and for all the guests that are here – I see a lot of non-natives here – to come and listen," he said.
"It is time that they understood why we are the way we are."