Equally it was his message delivered with passion and eloquence. As Arcand shared, “I never thought I would see this day,” while in the same breath conceding that he was speaking of events that he had spent a lifetime trying to forget.
You see, Arcand wasn’t always this grand figure holding the microphone. He was considerably smaller when as a youngster he was spirited away from his family and thereafter had to endure the intolerable pain and suffering of residential school life.
Today, via his involvement with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, he uses opportunities such as this to bring this dark period in Canadian history to life so that it will be neither forgotten nor repeated, but rather understood and acknowledged.
Arcand emphasized to those in the crowd that he wasn’t here looking for pity, but rather to help the Canadian populace understand to a large degree the reasons why Aboriginal people struggle in the way they have.
“It’s part of all of us; it is Canada’s darkest secret, and as the youth you have a chance to use it in your learning and help to be the change. When you go home, hug those around you, because we went through a generation without having that opportunity. To see what is happening here makes my heart soar. This is setting a standard and you are being leaders in helping us spread the message. You can go home and educate your parents.”
In an interview afterwards, Arcand took a deep sigh and conceded that he has to get himself mentally prepared for events such as this where raw emotion and painful memories are close to the surface.
“It’s my duty on behalf of my classmates back then, but this is for everyone. What happened to us is not going to go away and so it’s important for us to change attitudes and behaviours. I look at Saskatchewan [his home province] and it has been guilty of avoidance and people didn’t want to admit it. At one point there were 17 residential schools operating here. We can’t change that, but we can work together to create a new destiny as a people.
“What I’ve found in talking to other residential school survivors is that we have the same sense of shame and guilt. I’ve carried that all these years and it took a long time for me to understand that I had done nothing wrong. I’m not saying it was all bad, but the 15 to 20 percent of those in positions of power were so destructive. They destroyed our minds and hearts.”
An accomplished multi-sports athlete, Arcand recalls how it was the only area where he felt safe and could be creative without being afraid to try.
Even to this day, Arcand swallowed hard when disclosing that he has been unable to talk to his own children about his experiences, due in large part to the pent-up anger that recounting those experiences brings. He said that in the early years as a father he was admittedly dysfunctional due to circumstances he didn’t understand at the time. His eyes lighten up at the notion that he is now getting a second chance as a grandparent.
According to Arcand, it’s important for him to stray well outside his comfort zone in delivering this painful memory. “We’re not doing this to hurt anyone by opening old wounds, but we have important work to do,” he said, while freely admitting that he sees symbols every day of this dark period of his life.
“I’m damaged goods, and I have to put in every effort possible to try to make a difference. It scares me that the history of my country is still there in terms of racism. We need to remember that a child is innocent and when you see some of the things that go on, those are learned behaviours. It used to make me angry when people would say just get over it. But it just shows me that we have much work to do and that motivates me.”
Arcand is enough of a realist to know the changes he hopes for won’t happen in the immediate future.
“It’s going to take two or three generations, but my challenge is to try to make it happen in one generation because we can’t continue to destroy our own as a people of this country.”