Speaking Up For Reconciliation: Tim O’Loan’s Journey from the Military to the Stage
“Everything I do is through the filter of reconciliation,” shares public speaker and educator Tim O’Loan. He is Indigenous, with roots in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories. His grandfather moved their family to Yellowknife so his kids could attend school, only to have them taken away to residential schools. O’Loan’s mother got pregnant with him young, so he was adopted into a non-Indigenous family as part of the 60s Scoop. To get out of his environment, he joined the military at 17 where he served for a decade.
After struggling with the racism in the service, he left the military. Growing up, O’Loan was raised by his father to believe he wasn’t very smart. He didn’t have strong grades in high school, but on her deathbed, his adoptive mother asked him to promise if he left the military he would go to university. Despite his grades, he was accepted to university as a mature student in Ottawa.
In university, he spent time with exciting young Indigenous students. He failed his first four papers because he struggled with writing and it took him four years to finish his three-year degree. Later, his aunt encouraged him to come back home to Yellowknife to meet his grandfather and he ended up moving there, spending time with family, getting married, having children then moving back to Ottawa to complete a master’s degree.
Once he graduated, he was invited to be an advisor to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and advise the Honourable Murray Sinclair, which he did for five years. The weight of the stories he heard caused him to struggle with his own mental health, resulting in a PTSD diagnosis, something he still struggles with and has been in therapy for.
“The resiliency of people just going through what they went through but coming out the other side, it was incredibly empowering and inspiring for me.”
Unable to work full-time from the trauma and after having a mental health crash, O’Loan went on disability. He tried to go back unsuccessfully but couldn’t sustain concentration enough for full-time work. He started doing presentations and started to participate in providing content to the Connected North program and doing speaking engagements about Reconciliation based on his experiences with survivors and the Truth and Reconciliation process.
“I had a lot of trauma. And that trauma sticks to you.”
In therapy, he learned to care less about what people think of him, dealt with his trauma and realized he wasn’t actually stupid. He also learned he didn’t have to be guarded, he could just surround himself with people who won’t judge him. Veterans Affairs contributed to his therapy costs given the impact the military had on him as well.
“When you sit with your authentic self, there's a level of peace that comes in.”
His advice for youth considering leaving home for school or work draws from his military experience.
“I got posted to Europe when I was 18 and I was a richer person because of it, because I now had a reference point of what the world was like, even beyond Canada. I know our home communities, or traditional territories, are incredibly important. But… I'm also aware of the limitations of our communities as well… We can leave without forgetting where we come from,” he explains, reflecting on the challenges faced in community because of intergenerational trauma.
Ultimately, O’Loan wants youth to know that there are people who come from the North who live in places like Edmonton, so there are opportunities to connect with others from their area and also connecting with home is easier than it has ever been through technology. That connectivity helps with staying close to those who inspire us, even from afar.
For O’Loan, the person who inspires him most is his grandfather, who was a trapper and lost one of his children to tuberculosis while he was trapping. Packing up his dog team to move to the city, his grandfather worked under challenging conditions in a gold mine, then lost his children to government policy.
“He was just a kind, loving man who just wanted the best for his children,” he reflects. While his grandfather has passed on, he left an incredible legacy. Beyond his family, O’Loan feels inspired that the majority of his career is behind him and he’s freed up to do the kind of work that he wants to do. Through his speaking engagements, he hopes to help students understand the things that have impacted their parents and communities.
If he could give a message to his younger self it would be, “You’re worth it. Try not to hurt people. Plant seeds of dignity along your journey. Cut yourself some slack. Give yourself permission to be imperfect. Try and live a good life. Try to be kind to strangers.” He wishes he knew to leave space for his journey not to be linear.
After all, the journey to Reconciliation is not linear, and that’s the filter through which he does everything. After facing racism in the military, childhood abuse and the Sixties Scoop, Tim O’Loan has come out the other side of many troubles. His time advising the Truth and Reconciliation Commission left him forever changed and he’s sought help to heal. Now he shares his story in hopes of helping a Nation heal, one audience at a time.
Thanks to Alison Tedford Seaweed for authoring this article.
Future Pathways Fireside Chats are a project of TakingITGlobal's Connected North Program.
Funding is generously provided by the RBC Foundation in support of RBC Future Launch, and the Government of Canada's Supports for Student Learning program.