Justice Harry S. LaForme, an aboriginal Ontario Court of Appeal judge, has been appointed by the federal government to chair an independent commission that will hear the stories and promote public education about the 150-year legacy of the now-defunct Indian residential schools.
“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 all Canadians,” said Minister of Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl who announced on April 28 Justice LaForme’s appointment as chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Ottawa. Mr. Strahl said that Justice LaForme, who is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nations in southern Ontario, “brings a wealth of respect and leadership experience and is the most senior aboriginal judge in the country.”
Assembly of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine hailed Justice LaForme’s appointment saying, “Not only is he a proud First Nations citizen, he is an outstanding jurist and a compassionate and understanding person.” He added: “I have no doubt he will leave no stoned unturned in his investigation of exactly what happened in residential schools, the harm caused, why and how it happened and who was responsible. At the same time, he will bring the grace and compassion required in the truth commission’s work so necessary for healing to begin.”
The Canadian Press quoted Justice La Forme as having said that the TRC is important “not so we can punish, but so we can walk forward into the future.” He also said he was proud to live in a country that was willing to examine a “horrendous” chapter of its history.
Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, sent his envoy for residential schools, retired Archishop Terence Finlay, as his representative to attend the announcement of Justice LaForme’s appointment in Ottawa. Archbishop Hiltz is currently attending a meeting in Chennai, India of the Anglican-Lutheran International Commission.
Last March, Archbishop Hiltz and Bishop Mark MacDonald, national Anglican indigenous bishop, joined other church leaders in a national tour to raise awareness about the commission.
Bishop MacDonald said Justice LaForme’s appointment gives “a very great feeling of relief, hope and expectation.” He added: “The Commission is a doorway to truth, reconciliation and hope and it looks like this is a very good beginning. I join many people in Canada and beyond in applauding this finally happening.”
Justice LaForme was unanimously chosen from more than 300 nominees by a panel composed of representatives from national native organizations and parties to the revised settlement agreement that came into effect last September. He will help select the two other members of the commission, which is part of the revised settlement agreement between the government, representatives of former residential schools students and churches who operated the boarding schools.
The TRC is meant to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a “holistic, culturally-appropriate and safe setting.” Representatives of government and churches that operated the schools will also be invited to share their stories. (The Anglican church operated 35 of about 130 boarding schools attended by aboriginals from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. In recent years, hundreds of former students have sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.)
During its five-year term, the commission will produce a report and recommendations, and establish a national archive/research center regarding residential schools.
Justice LaForme, 61, began his law career as an associate of a corporate commercial law firm before specializing in aboriginal law. He has litigated and focused on matters involving the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
He was appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, now the Superior Court of Justice, in 1994. At the time of his appointment, he was one of three native judges appointed to this level of trial court in Canada. He was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2004.
In 1989, he was appointed commissioner of the Indian Commission of Ontario, and in 1991, as chief commissioner of the Indian Specific Claims Commission on Aboriginal land claims.
Justice LaForme has taught “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples” course at Osgoode Law School, where he graduated in 1977.
He has been awarded with the National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1997) and aboriginal elders have, on three occasions, presented him with an eagle feather, symbolizing the virtues of honesty, integrity, and respect.