Concerns mount over resignation of residential schools commission chair

Justice Harry LaForme
Justice Harry LaForme
Published October 22, 2008

Various groups, including the Anglican Church of Canada, have expressed concern that the resignation on Oct. 20 of Justice Harry LaForme as chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will further delay the truth-gathering process involving former students of native boarding schools, most of whom are now elderly.

Mr. LaForme said he resigned because of an “incurable problem” that doomed the TRC “as currently constituted” to failure.

Mr. LaForme, who was chosen as chair on April 28, said that the TRC was “on the verge of paralysis” because the two commissioners have “repeatedly and openly rejected” his authority and vision for the commission.

“The two commissioners are unprepared to accept that the structure of the commission requires that the TRC’s course is to be charted and its objectives are to be shaped ultimately through the leadership and authority of its chair,” said Mr. LaForme in a letter to Chuck Strahl, the minister of Indian affairs and Northern Development. He added that the two commissioners – Jane Brewin-Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith – do not share his interpretation that the TRC’s mandate emphasizes reconciliation. He said that they “see the TRC as primarily a truth commission. Unlike mine, theirs is a view that leaves much of the work of reconciliation for another day.” (Ms. Brewin-Morely and Ms. Dumont-Smith have not commented on Mr. LaForme’s resignation and his accusations of a power struggle within the TRC.)

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said it was “unfortunate” that Mr. LaForme had resigned. “It appears that they (commissioners) had difficulty working together. I’m concerned about that in itself, but my deeper concern is that it represents a delay in the commission being able to go ahead in its mandate to record and preserve the stories of residential school survivors,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “My heart goes out to them.”

He said that for many former residential schools students, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology last June and the creation of the TRC were “signs of hope for their healing and journey to a new life.”

Archbishop Hiltz said that the Anglican church would “do all that we can” to engage the government in finding a resolution to the matter. (The Anglican church operated 26 of 80 boarding schools attended by aboriginals from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. In recent years, hundreds of natives sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.)

Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said it was urgent to find a replacement for Mr. LaForme. “We can’t afford to delay the process any longer. The average age of a residential schools survivor is 65. They’re dying at a rate of four a day,” Mr. Fontaine told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

The TRC is part of a revised and court-approved Indian residential schools agreement that was negotiated in 2006 between former students, churches (including the Anglican church), the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal organizations. It aims to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a culturally-appropriate setting, and to set the historical record straight about the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation through the Indian residential schools.)A spokesperson for Mr. Strahl told CBC News that Mr. LaForme’s resignation is being reviewed and the situation is still being assessed.


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