Aboriginal judge to lead truth commission

  • May 1, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - The newly appointed chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission plans wide-ranging public hearings that will hear from all sides.

“The only way to understand this tragic legacy is to understand all its components,” said Judge Harry LaForme, 61, in an interview April 29.

LaForme said the residential schools policy intended to “remove the Indian from the child” by taking him from his family, because the “wigwam was more powerful” than the institution.

“That’s the tree that poisoned all the fruit,” he said.  

However, LaForme acknowledged that not every residential school survivor was a victim. Some had positive experiences; he wants to hear their stories, too. He also wants to hear from the churches and from the people who worked in the schools.

“I can tell you that their love of their church is as great as the love the aboriginal people had to their communities,” he said.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl announced LaForme’s appointment April 28 in Ottawa. An Ontario Court of Appeal justice, LaForme is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation of Southern Ontario.

“This is an important step in our commitment to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, and another example of our government doing the right thing for former students, and for all Canadians,” said Strahl in a statement, noting that LaForme is the “most senior aboriginal judge in the country.”

The unanimous choice among 300 candidates, LaForme will join Strahl and Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine in selecting an additional two commissioners. The commission hopes to start hearings June 1.

“I think it’s good that finally someone has been named and the process can begin,” said Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie.

The 50 Catholic entities — dioceses and religious orders that ran residential schools — have been “on hold” waiting for the process to start, Lavoie said. As part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the entities are responsible for $80 million towards healing and reconciliation that includes case and in-kind services. Lavoie said the entities also plan a major fund-raising campaign.

Though he does not know LaForme, Lavoie said he seems to “have a fairly balanced view and be open to hearing everybody’s story.”

Lavoie said he and a few other Catholic bishops involved in the settlement agreement hope to meet with LaForme and the commissioners before the formal hearings start.

Fontaine has talked about how the commission will help write the “missing chapter” of Canadian history. The churches and the government have promised full access to their records to further this goal.

LaForme stressed the role of the commission to allow survivors to tell their stories, but also to fill in a canvass with much of the detail, positive and negative that is missing.  

“I look at it as a canvas that is blank right now,” he said. “We know in a general way what the painting will look like.”

Several of Canada’s Catholic bishops have spoken out about the overwhelmingly negative narrative that prevails in the media that seems to blame every problem aboriginal people face on the residential schools experience.

“There’s a dark side and a light side, a grace side and a sinful side,” Lavoie said.

He noted that the “missing chapter” is “quite a story” that involves 100 years of Canadian history. He acknowledged that the separation of children from parents was “terrible.” But there are some amazing stories of religious sisters and brothers who gave their lives. Some of the older sisters have told him about how they left their homes never to go back and the loneliness they experienced working at the schools.

“We have to set aside some political correctness here and deal with what really happened on all sides,” he said. “It wasn’t fairyland anywhere. There were a lot of challenges.

“People were people, weak human beings, and sometimes the worst comes out of us,” he said.

LaForme said he hopes the commission will include healing, understanding and truth.

“In order to understand where we are presently, we have to understand the past and know what the past is. Only by knowing how we got here will we know how to make it positive in the future,” he said.

LaForme also recognized that most First Nations people identify themselves as Christian.

“My first impression would be they’re not talking about delivering a particular kind of faith or religion,” he said, noting the objections may rest more in the process.

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