Truth and Reconciliation Commission getting back on track

  • February 3, 2009

truthCommission.jpgOTTAWA - The Truth and Reconciliation Commission looking into Indian residential schools, stalled by the resignation last October of its chairman, is now looking for new members.

On Jan. 30, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced that all parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement have agreed on a process to choose a new chair and new commissioners.

“A selection committee chaired by Justice Frank Iacobucci will work closely to find the best candidates in the most efficient manner,” Strahl said in a statement. “It is expected this process will move forward quickly.”

“We have a great expectation we will be able to work in a diligent way in order to have the commission working the sooner the better,” said Pierre Baribeau, the legal representative of the 50 Catholic entities — dioceses and religious orders who ran Indian residential schools — involved in the agreement.

Baribeau will be among the members of the selection committee that will include Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine; Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon; and representatives from the government, the Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches, and from the former students or claimants in the agreement.

Baribeau noted that the Catholic entities have not waited for the commission to begin its work in healing and reconciliation. At least $10 million in reconciliation work is being done currently by Catholic people, he said in an interview from Montreal.

The Catholic’s Return to Spirit program has proven so successful that other churches are trying it, he said.

“Half of our participants are First Nations. It shows that reconciliation works and Catholics have not been waiting for the (commission) to do their homework.”

Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court Justice, was asked to help negotiate a way forward for the commission after Justice Harry LaForme resigned Oct. 20, citing disagreement with the other two commissioners over the role of reconciliation in the process and over the role of the chair. LaForme, who had been a judge with the Ontario Court of Appeal, described the commission as “on the verge of paralysis.”

On Jan. 30, commissioners Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Morley announced “with sadness” their intention to resign, effective June 1.

“Although we disagree with the stated perceptions of Mr. Justice Harry LaForme when he resigned as Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we believe that revisiting the statements he made at the time of his resignation would not be of any benefit to the Truth and

Reconciliation process, to which we remain profoundly committed,” they said.

They also said that despite the differences with LaForme, “there was never in our view any difference in the importance we all attached to reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

The commissioners said Canada’s reconciliation commission was not the first to “have a troubled start,” but there is no reason to doubt its future success.

The leadership structure of the commission, Baribeau said, would be left to the selection committee. According to previous reports, the two commissioners saw the role of all three commissioners as equal, but LaForme contended the chair had a special role.

“It will be hard work, but I think we’ll be able to find good candidates to fill the positions that are now vacant,” Baribeau said.

The Catholic entities agreed to a total of $80 million as part of the agreement: $29 million in cash within five years and $25 million of "in-kind" services. They must also raise $25 million within 10 years. The government agreed to $2.2 billion in compensation, averaging $25,000 per student for “common experience payments.”

In late January, Canwest News reported that the government payments had led to a spike in suicides, substance abuse and depression on some reserves. Baribeau called the reports “sad” and “unfortunate” but added they show “money isn’t the main solution.”

“It is the process of reconciliation and healing that is much more useful to individuals,” he said.

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