New Truth and Reconciliation commissioners revealed

Marie Wilson, a former regional director of CBC North, and Chief Winton Littlechild, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
Marie Wilson, a former regional director of CBC North, and Chief Winton Littlechild, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
Published June 6, 2009

As Canadians prepare to mark the first anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s June 11 official apology to native people who suffered abuse as children in Indian Residential Schools, unofficial reports of the names of those chosen as a new chair and commissioners for the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) appeared in the media.

The Globe and Mail has reported that Justice Murray Sinclair, a respected Manitoba judge, will chair the commission. Judge Sinclair grew up on the former St. Peter’s Indian Reserve north of Selkirk, Man. and attended law school at the University of Manitoba. He was appointed the Associate Chief Justice of the provincial court of Manitoba in 1988, becoming the first native judge on the bench in Manitoba and only the second in Canada. The Globe also reported that the two new commissioners to be named are Wilton Littlechild, the Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, and Marie Wilson, a former regional director of CBC North who is married to Stephen Kakfwi, a Dene former premier of the Northwest Territories. Indian Affairs and Northern Development Minister Chuck Strahl’s office would not confirm the appointments or a time when an official announcement would be made.

The TRC, created to provide former students and their families with a forum to share their experiences, has been sidelined since its first chair, Judge Harry LaForme, resigned, complaining that the two other commissioners did not accept his authority as chair. Those commissioners, Jane Brewin Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith, resigned in January (effective June 1) to allow the commission to begin with a clean slate.

In Ottawa, the first anniversary of the Canadian government’s apology on June 11 will begin with a sunrise ceremony on Victoria Island, a small island in the Ottawa River. Archbishop Terence Finlay, retired bishop of the diocese of Toronto and metropolitan (senior bishop) of Ontario, will represent Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who is traveling and unable to attend. Henriette Thompson, director of the church’s partnerships department, and Bishop John Chapman of the diocese of Ottawa, will also attend.

At a gift-giving ceremony later in the morning, Archbishop Finlay will present Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine with a chalice on behalf of the church. “The chalice is a symbol of new life, hope and grace and the Anglican Church of Canada offers this as a sign of its commitment to continue to work for truth-telling, healing and reconciliation with First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples who suffered pain and anguish from the residential schools system,” he said. The anniversary “reminds all of us that words are significant, but words must include actions, and I think the church is very much committed to those works that need to be done,” Archbishop Finlay said.

At 11 a.m. there will be a march from Victoria Island to Parliament Hill for a unity rally. Mr. Fontaine and other speakers will address the crowd and then children will invite everyone to join in a round dance, a traditional expression of friendship and goodwill.

During the afternoon, native leaders will meet with members of the senate. A gathering to acknowledge and thank the outgoing TRC commissioners will follow, as well as a Legacy of Hope Foundation event at the National Library where former prime minister Paul Martin and author John Ralston Saul will speak. (Legacy of Hope is a national, charitable organization established by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to educate and create awareness and understanding about the legacy of residential schools.)

Esther Wesley, indigenous healing co-ordinator of the Anglican church’s partnerships department, said the apology and the first anniversary has significance to many people who attended residential schools because it “affirmed their experience,” but she noted there are many other people who have not accepted the apology. The anniversary “is a chance to reflect” on the year since the apology, she said, noting that former students have accomplished a great deal despite the fact that the commission was sidelined, with some groups even organizing their own hearings to record the stories of former students that can be handed over (with permission) to the TRC when it begins again. The anniversary, she added, “is a chance for everyone to look around and say, ‘Ok, we’ve just begun; what do we need to do now?'” Ms. Wesley said.

Many more events are being held throughout the country. For example, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is hosting an event in Winnipeg’s Memorial Park to recognize former residential school students who have helped maintain indigenous cultures and heritage. In Toronto, a forum held at the law society will examine the role of the aboriginal bar and the legal profession in the Indian Residential Schools adjudication process.

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.


  • Leigh Anne Williams

    Leigh Anne Williams joined the Anglican Journal in 2008 as a part-time staff writer. She also works as the Canadian correspondent for Publishers Weekly, a New York-based trade magazine for the book publishing. Prior to this, Williams worked as a reporter for the Canadian bureau of TIME Magazine, news editor of Quill & Quire, and a copy editor at The Halifax Herald, The Globe and Mail and The Bay Street Bull.

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