Truth and Reconciliation Commission set to look at Indian residential school abuses

  • June 18, 2009
{mosimage}OTTAWA - Justice Murray Sinclair has been appointed chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into abuses at Indian residential schools.

“It’s a very daunting task,” Manitoba’s first aboriginal judge said. “We have a long road to walk and we don’t have as much time as we could probably use to get there.”

But Sinclair said he is committed to an accurate commission process that will treat all parties fairly, including those who have a positive story to tell.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and former Member of Parliament, and Marie Wilson, a former reporter who also served as a regional director of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, will join him as commissioners.

Though the new commission does not officially begin until July 1, Sinclair plans to meet with the other commissioners to discuss the next steps, including short- and long-term plans. 

“We still have to wrestle our way out of our current obligations,” he said.

Pierre Baribeau, a lawyer who represented the 50 Catholic entities in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that called for the commission, said he was pleased with the process of finding the new commissioners.

“I think they are top candidates,” the Montreal-based lawyer said. “It bodes well for the future.”

Baribeau praised Sinclair’s experience. Sinclair was first appointed to the bench in 1988 and was co-commissioner of the Manitoba Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

Baribeau raised concerns about how well the commission will be able to integrate all the parties so they feel at ease to participate at every level. He said minimal guarantees are needed not only by survivors but also by people from the religious communities, he said.

“I would love to hear from them,” Sinclair said. “I know that there were many people who devoted their lives to the children who sent there and who worked hard to ensure that the children’s difficulties that arose naturally from being taken away from their families were dealt with in a positive way.

“I have had elders speak to me and tell me that they are not happy with the fact that the public seems to think that everybody who went to residential schools was abused... Our thinking would be that that voice is also part of the conversation.”

The commission also needs to provide a safe place for those who suffered horrendous abuse in these schools.

“One of the things that reconciliation calls for is an opportunity for the good and the bad to be shared,” he said.

Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, whose diocese was among the 50 entities that ran residential schools, said he is happy the process can get underway.

“My hope is that this will truly be a fact-finding process that will seek to present a factual, unbiased, accurate and balanced record of the reality of the residential school experience from the perspective of all who were involved — former students who may have had a positive experience, survivors who had terrible and even tragic experiences and the descendants of both, as well as workers and their descendants,” he said.

The commission was supposed to begin hearings a year ago. But its work derailed when a dispute developed among commissioners and the previous chair, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned last October. The other commissioners resigned several months later to provide a clean slate.

“I hope that the previous experience has taught all involved some lessons to build on that will assure the success of this venture,” Lavoie said.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine welcomed the appointments.

“First Nations citizens and survivors across the country are eager to see the commission begin its work as soon as possible,” said Fontaine in a statement. “It is important that survivors and all those involved in the schools have a chance to tell their stories.

“The commission will be an important vehicle to advance our national goal of reconciliation by building greater understanding among all the peoples of this land.”

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