Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair's resignation "sad"

  • October 22, 2008
{mosimage}OTTAWA - The sudden resignation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Justice Harry LaForme has surprised and disappointed both Catholic and aboriginal leaders.

The commission was formed as a result of the Indian residential schools settlement agreement and has a five-year mandate to allow former students and others who participated in the schools to tell their stories.

“It’s sad because this is going to delay the process, not only because many of the former students and teachers are aging and dying, but also because there’s an urgency for there to be reconciliation in Canada around this issue,” said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops president Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber.

The archbishop said LaForme’s high-profile and prestigious character “lent a lot of credibility and competence to the truth and reconciliation process.”

LaForme, a judge with the Ontario Court of Appeal until his appointment last April, quit as chair of the $60-million commission Oct. 20, saying it was “on the verge of paralysis” and would fail if it continued on its current course. He cited differences with the other two commissioners over the role of reconciliation in the commission's process and over the its leadership structure.

“The reason is that they and their supporters see the (commission) as primarily a truth commission,” LaForme wrote in an Oct. 20 letter faxed to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. “Unlike mine, theirs is a view that leaves much of the work of reconciliation for another day.

“It is a view that does not recognize the need for uncovering and recording the truths of the (residential schools') past and legacy as but a part, however important, of the greater whole of reconciliation.”

LaForme said the two commissioners would not accept his leadership but instead wanted the commission to operate by a majority vote, “thereby ensuring that their restricted vision will be the one consistently sustained.”

However, Pierre Baribeau, a Montreal-based lawyer who negotiated on behalf of the 50 Catholic entities — dioceses and religious orders — that ran residential schools, said the role of the chair described by LaForme was not in the agreement.

“For our purposes it was a collegiate group that was appointed,” Baribeau said. “There were no special powers for the chair contemplated by the agreement.

“If there had been any private agreement with the federal agreement we were not aware of the contents. All commissioners went through the same selection process and as candidates their names were on the list that we proposed to the government.

“And the two commissioners were as qualified as the chair to be commissioners,” he said. “We recommended Mr. LaForme as chair because of his past experience.”

Baribeau described the disagreement as an “internal matter” to be solved among the commissioners.

“As far as the Catholics are concerned, reconciliation is essential but the truth is part of the process,” he said.

Commissioners Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley said in an Oct. 21 statement they agreed the intent of the commission process is healing and reconciliation.

“It is not surprising that we have had some growing pains,” said Dumont-Smith, describing the court-ordered commission designed by the parties to the agreement as “unique” and never tried before in Canada or the world.

Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie, who represents a diocese involved in the agreement, said in an e-mail he found the resignation unfortunate because it slowed down the process.

“We were doing our best as Catholic entities to support it and participate in it.”

He agreed with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine’s “expressed hope that it would write the missing chapter and that everyone’s story would be heard.”

“It has taken quite a while for this commission to get started,” said Gerry Kelly, an aboriginal affairs expert who advises the Catholic entities. “Certainly we would have hoped we could have been further along by now.

“Let’s find a chair and get to the work of doing it. My sense is that the process of reconciliation is such a delicate process, the commissioners really have to be of one mind.”

Strahl’s communications director Ted Yeomans said in an e-mail a court-appointed mediator “was not able to reconcile differences between the chair and the two commissioners.”

“As this is a court-ordered settlement agreement, this resignation will need to be reviewed by the courts and we await their direction on moving forward,” Yeomans said.

“Further to our government's apology to former residential school students, we are fully committed to implementing the settlement agreement once we receive guidance from the courts.”

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