Finding Healing After Surviving Residential Schools in Canada – Transcript

About This Episode

Porcupine (00:00): From residential schools to singing on stage with George Jones, George Tuccaro shares his courageous journey from the drunk tank to professional CBC broadcaster and explains why personal healing is essential to reconciliation and joy.

Episode Introduction

Porcupine: How do porcupines hug? Very carefully, and such is the story of reconciliation, at least so far. I’m Merrell-Ann Phare. I’m Michael Miltenberger. This is Porcupine.

Porcupine (00:40): We’re here this morning, Merrell-Ann Phare and I, co-hosts of Porcupine podcast, to talk to George Tuccaro, a Northern legend who started his life in Fort Chip and he’s traveled a very interesting path, which he is going to share with us this morning. Good morning, George. 

George Tuccaro: Good morning, Michael. A real pleasure to talk with you. 

Tell us about your journey.

Porcupine (1:07): So I want to start off just by asking you basically to introduce yourself, you’ve had a fascinating life’s journey starting in Fort Chip, as I said, you had your initial challenges, which I hope you’ll touch on and your moment of personal clarity on your road forward. And are there some of the milestones you can share with us that got us to this point in our lives, where we are here talking to you about your life and what it means with reconciliation and those related efforts? 

George Tuccaro (01:53): Well, my life’s literally started at the hands of a midwife by the name of Jenny Flett back in May 12, 1950. That seems like a long, long time ago. I think she said that I probably came out probably telling you a story or a joke or something like that because humour has been a big part of my life. So back in 1950, I grew up in Fort Chipewyan. I had to go to Fort Smith for about two and a half years, I was struck with TB and spinal meningitis. And there was a time where the doctor said to my mom that you better say a prayer for George, because I don’t think he’s going to make it through the night. And she must have prayed because I’m still here. Anyway, after turning around six years old and I was taken and put into the Holy Angels Residential School in Fort Chipewyan one that literally could see my home.

George Tuccaro (02:42): But I was in this place called the Holy Angels Residential School and there they were tasked with taking a whole bunch of us kids. I think it was about 200 of us that were in that residential school.

They literally tried to reprogram us to take the Indian out of the child, I think was the objective back in those days. 

And so, you know, there’s a lot of issues that came out as a result of that. I was a product of some of those issues as well after I left residential school. I was only there for six years. But in that time a lot of things had happened to a young boy who all of a sudden lost all the nurturing and everything, and I had to leave for Chipewyan after I reached grade nine, because that’s as far as the school went in Fort Chipewyan, so we had to go to other places.

George Tuccaro (03:39): So I ended up going south for education and homesickness was a big part of the challenges that I had to be able to gain my education. And after finishing the schooling down south, I ended up going to Yellowknife and became a broadcaster with CBC, and pretty much everything else took place there. 

But one of the things that happened while I was becoming a young broadcaster was that I got involved in alcohol abuse.

Quite severely because of a whole bunch of things that were inside of me that had happened and go along the way. Because I’m trying to make the story short, but there’s some things that happened along the way that caused me to actually end up being an alcoholic. The residential school fallout, the loss of my younger brother who was killed horrible, tragic accident,

George Tuccaro (04:35): the breakup of my mum and dad as a teenager, all of those things were all brewing inside of me. Yeah. Okay. There was this young guy who started to really not like himself that much, that’s me. And it manifested itself back in 1980, where I ended up in the drunk tank and I realized, man, I’m living there, prophecy. The nuns had told me that I wasn’t going to amount to anything and that I was Savage. And all those words came back to me. From that moment on, I said, ‘I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m going to change my ways.’ That was back in 1980. I’m now 40 years into my sobriety and my path that I’m going at, and a lot of things have happened. A lot of good things have happened since I changed my mind and changed my ways and became a professional broadcaster and instead of a professional drunk.

George Tuccaro (05:28): So I guess you can’t put it any other way than that, you know? And so, I was quite fortunate to be able to turn my life around, and there’s a lot of self-help programs that were available to me. So, I made sure I took every one of them. And slowly everything started to get so much better. And I concluded my career as a broadcaster, went into self-help groups, helped self-help workshops, helping people to help themselves. Because, you know, I think I was able to heal one heart at a time, including mine, and then working with my family, then I could reach out beyond, and I was able to do that. And then call back into work to become the 16th commissioner of the Northwest Territory.

Is there a special role or significance of men’s healing in addressing the legacy of colonization and residential schools?

Porcupine (06:15): So I just wanted to congratulate you on your 40 years of sobriety, by the way, that is a very significant accomplishment. And I think one of the questions I have…cause I did not know that you’ve spent as much time as you have in self-help and personal healing journey. But of course, that would go along with that. Do you see… is there a special role or significance of men’s healing in addressing kind of the legacy of colonization and the legacy of residential schools?

George Tuccaro (06:49): Well, you know, it’s funny that you should say that because in all the workshops and different places that I traveled, whether it was the Yukon, the Northwest territories and Nunavut, and then places in the South as well in the Northern parts of the Southern provinces, it was mainly women that came to do the healing and a lot of men didn’t, you know. And I tried to encourage a lot of men to do that. And so I think that’s still the challenge today is to get them in, to dig down deep inside and, you know, pull this stuff out and look at it and get rid of it, you know, and keep on going and create yourself a happy place in this  world so that we could raise our children. And we could be more in the moment as it were with our children or with our grandchildren. You know, we tend to gravitate to the grandchildren, but it’s our children that are raising our grandchildren. And so I have only one son and one daughter but they’re my best friends. You know, we talk, we have a great relationship. And I had to work for that. I had to work hard for that. And I’m so grateful today that I had that.

Finding your way through the pain and helping others:

Porcupine (08:08): I think it’s so important that somebody who’s so well-known, and so successful, talks so openly about what your journey was. I think it’s inspirational for people because in the depths of this issue, recovering, and also talking about the big challenge we have on reconciliation to try to move through it in so many parts of Canadian society and individual’s lives and families and communities, you know. Showing what you said about being able to move forward. You can actually move past it, in some ways you never forget, but your story is one where you found your way through it. And I think some people often feel like it’s just never gonna end, right? Like you’re not going to through it. 

Porcupine (08:57): Thank you for that. Very, very important message. 

George Tuccaro: Thank you. Because, you know, I think as I approach my elder years, you know, it’s not so much now how much I know, how much I’m able to pass on before I pass, you know. So, to take that and take all of that experience and to move it forward, to be able to help people to help themselves. That’s where I find myself right now. You know, things are a little different now because of COVID, because I’m not able to travel in and to spread that word as easily as I used to because people aren’t traveling and things are on hold, you know. But the problems are still there. They’re just put on hold. And once we get past all of this, I hope to be able to go back in again, to be able to work with people and to do as much goodness as I can.

Porcupine (09:58): Everybody works through their healing journey in a different way and often it’s a pretty bumpy road. We hear through the grapevine that a famous American comedian gave you a hand. 

Using humour to heal:

George Tuccaro: As I began to walk down the healing road, I had to find things that were natural to me. One of the things that came natural to me was that I was able to use healing through humour, to be able to release a lot of tension, a lot of stress in my life, and to be able to pass that goodness on to other people. And so, I used humour a lot. And I went to a public speaking, emceeing and going to various stages and entertaining the people through humour. And a lot of people still recall some of the crazy antics that I might’ve done on stage or little skips that I’d put on because I fashioned myself around a guy by the name of Red Skelton, who I’d seen on television.

George Tuccaro (11:00): And he became my mentor and, you know, all the time that I was on stage, I might’ve gone to the edge but I’ve never, ever used profane words in the stage setting. And that was because of Red Skelton. And I looked up to that guy and I said, ‘well, if I can even be a little bit like him, I might do all right here on stage.’ And I think that for the most part, I’ve done very, very well. And a lot of people really have stories that I may have told somewhere on some stage and memories of it. So yeah, we grew up on a street called bannock and lard avenue in Fort Chipewyan. Of our early, early beginnings…we were so poor, right? You know I used to say that people used to break into our house so they could leave things.

George Tuccaro (11:53): Oh, well. You know, it’s just things that I would bring up along the way. You know, it was so much fun to be able to talk about myself and put myself on the stage and when people would laugh my heart would sing somehow. And I think maybe the creator gave me that little strength to be able to persevere. And through the toughest times, you know, Aboriginal Peoples found a way to laugh. And I think that’s one of the things that I was able to pass on on-stage, you know, times can be tough, but we can still laugh. And a lot of people would say ‘George, how do you do events?’ Well you know part of me really what… it’s like Robin Williams’ thing, you know, part of me is really crying inside, but there’s always laughter that would be able to ease all of that pain until I was able to be strong enough to be able to release myself of all of that pain and be able to forgive a lot of things.

George Tuccaro (12:52): And when I did that, life just got so much better.

Porcupine (12:56): So George, you weren’t worried, or were you ever nervous about talking about these sensitive things and making them into something funny? Because I know that humour is so a critical part of working with Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous communities, but this subject seems like it’s one of those ones that…you know, reconciliation and some of the stuff in residential school just seems like it’s one of the ones that would be really nervous to go near. Yeah.

George Tuccaro (13:22): I had to learn forgiveness. Forgiveness was not just brushing it off and saying, wow. Forgiveness was forgiving back the hurt and the pain that was caused to me as a young boy, giving it back to those people who did that. And so, I was able to release myself to be able to find better things in life to think about. So, when I released it and gave it back to them, I was able to take my power back. 

And when I was able to take my power back, I was able to go on stage and be even funnier. 

And so, it was all a big part of my healing. And I think a lot of people find themselves hanging on to things that are so far back that it clouds the future. You know, it clouds this moment from this moment into the future.

George Tuccaro (14:12): So we need to be able to deal with those things, acknowledge  some hurt that you may have had and let it go, you know, and then move forward and be happy because life is too short. I am at 70 years of age and, you know, I feel young. And I think that humour was the thing that kept me young that kept me going and kept me vibrant, you know? And, I want to get up and I still have an opportunity to tell stories, you know? And I change my voice. Sometimes I change my accent, but I’m going to tell the Scottish joke…There’s another good joke that’s coming through in my mind now that I won’t tell, but I just wanted to let you know that I can do these things.

George Tuccaro (15:07): I do the cream, and once I do the, you know…that’s my own heritage, you know. The pre-Indigenous world, we have so many stories and I impersonate a lot of different things that I see out there. And it comes to my body, and I go on the stage tonight and I can do all of these things. And it’s just to create laughter you know, to have the people laughing. And when they’re laughing, I’m just dying. I’m dying inside because I’m just so happy that I’ve done something to make people laugh. And, you know, if I want to tell an old story, I can tell you one quick story of two Elders that were sitting on the Adirondack chairs looking across the Mackenzie River in Fort Simpson at the senior’s facility there. And one guy says, ‘you know, must be good on the other side.’ The other guy pipes up and he says, ‘the river?’ Cause they’re looking at the Mackenzie river. He says, ‘Oh, you know, when you die on the other side,’ the guy said, ‘yeah, it must be good. All right, you don’t see none of them coming back.’

George Tuccaro (16:20): So, you know, it’s those things that…you can bring people to that moment almost through the delivery of a joke. And, you know, I’ve been blessed with being able to do those types of things. But you know, it comes from inside of a person and in order to be happy, you have to be happy inside of you so that when you really go on stage, you see that happy person.

George’s work on a CBC Documentary about teenage suicides in the North:

Porcupine (16:47): That’s a really interesting contrast because as a media person, you often deal with really tough topics. I mean, the media doesn’t often bring good news. We know that you dealt with one of those really tough topics when you were working with Patti-Kay Hamilton, who was also with the CBC. And we interviewed her on our podcast in season one. Can you tell us about that?

George Tuccaro (17:08): Well, first of all Bob Rhodes, who was the manager at CBC, gave me the assignment of doing a documentary on teenage suicides. And I was so upset because that’s a pretty dangerous area to go and talk about. And so, my source of frustration was that I’d go to people that I knew dealings with suicide and they’d literally kicked me out of their house. I had no business asking them about suicide and all those things. So, I was really, really frustrated, but I knew that if I was to be able to get something on this, that it would be a great documentary. So, I kept digging. And I finally found some really, really good people who came along the way and a lady that had attempted three times, and attempted suicide as a young person, but changed it around to be a leading facilitator on suicide prevention.

George Tuccaro (18:10): So I thought, wow, you know, after searching and searching, I finally found this. So, I ended up doing this documentary and there’s one girl who attempted three times. She had to kill the feelings first. And she’d have to say, ‘nobody really cares if I’m here or not anyway.’ And so, she’d worked on that and then she’d work herself way into it. And then all of a sudden, she turned around again, but those words ‘kill the feelings first’ became the actual documentary title. So, we’re able to get some really, really good information with regard to teenage suicides in the North. And Patti-Kay Hamilton was a voice at CBC that narrated the documentary for me. And it ended up winning the Gabriel Award, the very first for CBC North.

George Tuccaro (19:08): And you know, it was back in 1985 when this documentary came out and I’m sitting in San Antonio, Texas, where they were giving the award out and listening to the people that came from like national public radio Los Angeles, Chicago, big cities…New York, Miami, and here’s just a little small radio station in the North that managed to capture a Gabriel Award by doing a documentary that was so hard to do. But it was so rewarding in the end that people really took notice of the radio documentary that we were able to come up with. And, you know, a great credit goes to a team of people who came together to help me to create this documentary. So, I’m, I’m not taking the credit all by myself. I’m gonna use that team that I had back then that helped me to receive this Gabriel award.

George Tuccaro (20:05): But it’s all part of broadcasting that CBC Yellowknife and CBC Mackenzie, I guess, we used to call it back then. We were able to find subject matters and material that was meaningful for our listeners in the North. 

Porcupine: Speaking to something that’s meaningful for the North…I want to make a point about something super meaningful for you and I, George. And that’s the fact that I have a loonie with your name on it dated 2017, September. Where you, I, and Larry Poitras, we played a season ending winner take all bragging rights round of golf, and I won, and I have that loony. And I know that really means a lot to you, and we’re going to settle that score against them.  Yeah, I think you’d probably get it. Yeah. Also, another story that I think I’d like to talk about, or have you talk about it and that’s: 

Tell us your life after CBC, and when you were given the honor of being commissioner.

George Tuccaro: I was so honored to be asked to serve as commissioner of the Northwest Territories, because it was my opportunity to be able to travel to the smallest communities around and say to the young children that are in school… and you know what I used to go into the schools.

George Tuccaro (21:30): And I remember going into the school in Fort McPherson, and there’s a buddy of mine that knew about me. He’s a buddy now, but, you know, he just knew about me and asked me to come to the Chief Julius School in Fort McPherson. And there I was to pass the message of reconciliation as the message of healing. Pass the message of, ‘Hey, you know, I come from a small town just like you, people here in Fort McPherson. And here I am the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. And you have that opportunity to do that as well in your life. Because, you know, I had no idea that I’d ever be the Commissioner of the Northwest Territories. One day at a time, I was able to find myself right here right now.’ And I’ve got to tell the story… As I was walking in to go and talk to the kids in the gymnasium, the vice principal of the school said, ‘George, the audience is waiting for you, go out there and talk with them.’ And I really, really tell them as he handed me the guitar…

George Tuccaro (22:37): So I go walking in as commissioner with a guitar. So, I was able to talk to the young people and give them encouraging words, you know, to be able to say, ‘look, you know, there’s life beyond all of this, and we need you to get your education. We need to get into a spot where we can start to do things on a bigger scale, bigger than Fort McPherson will ever be, you know, because you can travel anywhere in this world.’ And my dad said, ‘you know what? You could be anything you want to be. All we have to do is be kind to people. And the kindness will come back to you.’ And so that was the kind of message that I’d received from my father. As I got to leave for Chipewyan, to be able to travel around the world and do something different and rewarding and then as I look back, I have no regrets. I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful career in the Northwest Territories. I’m so glad that I chose the Northwest Territories to be my home, and then found a wife in Yellowknife and raise a family of two. I have two lovely grandchildren. So, you know, everything just turned out the way it’s supposed to be, but it came from the desire to love myself enough to want something better.

What does reconciliation mean to you?

Porcupine (24:03): So, George, could you paint a picture for people? What does reconciliation look like for you? How would you know we were there, or we were solidly on the path?

George Tuccaro (24:15): Reconciliation was the be all and end all for me because once I was able to reconcile a lot of things in my life…to be able to expose it and to write about it and to be able to speak to somebody about it and get it out of me, I was able to take all of that hurt and pain out and put in the good stuff. And then another of course was humour and music. That’s what filled a lot of that void that was taken out of there after I was able to release that hurt and pain. So, I encourage anybody who is having a rough time and going through this life and sitting there and down in the dumps to stand up and do the very same thing. You know, take it all out and move it, take the garbage out and put the good stuff in and life will change. Life will get better. And it’s happened to me. It can happen to anybody else.

How has music been a part of your healing journey?

Porcupine (25:11): George you’re known not only for your dedication to the North, your obvious dedication, your role as a CBC broadcaster and a media person, and as a comedian. But you’re also, in addition to all that, you’re also a musician. And I understand that music has been a big part of your healing journey.

George Tuccaro (25:30): There were healing songs that I used along the way too. And one of the best healing songs that I had was from a gentleman that I got to meet back in 2005 and to sing with him on stage. That of course was the late great George Jones and the song that…I was able to be on stage with him in Yellowknife. And, we had a chance to talk in the dressing room, which was a hockey dressing room. We’re sitting in and we talked about healing and we talked about sobriety and we talked about many things. For about 45 minutes George Jones, and I had spoken, and I told him that I used his song a lot in the healing. And he said, ‘Oh yeah, what song was that?’ And I said, ‘the song called choices.’…So I’ll sing a little bit of choices. I have a guitar here, sir. I’ll take it out here.

George Tuccaro: He came to Yellowknife and he said, ‘the reason that I came to Yellowknife…I came to Yellowknife to be able to say thank you to the North for all their support.’ Because he knew that the North really loved his music and what he did. And so, his only trip to the Northwest Territories was to Yellowknife. And there, he said, thank you too, to his audience out there. And I thought, ‘Oh, that was so cool.’

Porcupine: I wonder how he knew Northerners. What, do you guys buy a lot of George Jones albums? 

George Tuccaro: Well, he’d had many, many trips to Edmonton. And when you were in Edmonton, the whole half of the audience would be from Yukon, from the North, from the Northwest Territories and Northern part of the provinces as well. So, he knew that the North really, really are some of his biggest fans.

George Tuccaro (27:32): So here’s a song that is to anybody that is going on their healing journey…

Porcupine (28:50): Fantastic. Oh, you’ve got such a beautiful voice. What a heartbreaking song. It seems so, so you. I can see why you love that song. 

George Tuccaro: Well, you know, and George said, ‘sing it as often as you can.’ That’s what it was all about. ‘Cause it was part of his reconciliation and part of his healing as well. So, George Jones left the world in a much better place than when you first saw it. And he had his troubles  much the same as I’ve had my troubles, but my good times outweigh the troubles today. 

Porcupine: George, I’d like to thank you a lot, my friend, this has been a very good interview. Thank you. 

George Tuccaro: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be able to help out in any which way I can. Thank you. Nice meeting you, Merrell-Ann. 

Porcupine: Thank you. Is there anything else in particular you’d like to share with people, anything that we might not have asked you that you really want people to know about? 

George Tuccaro (30:00): It’s all about positive choices and always remember that goodness follows goodness. That’s all we need to know in this life. We do good things. Good things will follow us. 

Porcupine: And one of the good things I know that will follow me is the loonie with your initials on it from 2017. You know where I live, and I look forward to chatting with you again.

George Tuccaro (30:23): I’m going to work really hard to make sure I get it back. 

Porcupine: Thanks to you for listening to Porcupine Podcast. We hope you return and please feel free to rate and subscribe. Bye for now.

Listen to the Episode

Episode 1: Reconciliation Through Conservation: Mining, the Environment, and Development that Conflicts with the Rights and Values of Indigenous Peoples
Episode 2: The Human Right to a Healthy Environment: How It Can Transform Society and Achieve Reconciliation
Episode 3: Addressing the Indigenous Health Gap: Reconciliation Through Bridging Western and Indigenous Medicines
Episode 4: Finding Healing After Surviving Residential Schools in Canada
Episode 5: Reconciliation: Redefined by an Indigenous Spiritual Leader
Episode 6: Reconciliation and Serving the World Through Sustainable Engineering
Episode 7: How Housing Could Save the Lives of MMIWG
Episode 8: Exploring Reconciliation through Clean Energy in Indigenous Communities
Episode 9: Reconciliation and Climate Change: Indigenous Peoples Taking Action
Episode 10: Indigenous Economic Reconciliation: The Way to a Strong Canadian Economy


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