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.
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, said that Justice LaForme “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, “I have no doubt he will leave no stone unturned in his investigation of exactly what happened in residential schools, the harm caused, why and how it happened and who was responsible.”
Justice LaForme, who is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nations in southern Ontario, said the TRC is “not about putting names to individuals or putting a face to a uniform or anything like that. We know what occurred. What we now want to hear are the stories from themselves not so we can punish, but so we can walk forward into the future and build a new relationship.”
He also expressed appreciation for individuals from churches, former staff of residential schools and government who expressed their desire to participate “with honesty and humility” in the TRC’s work.
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 schools.
The Commission was to be established on June 1; the federal government announced it would issue a formal apology to former students on June 11.
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 centre on residential schools.
Justice LaForme, 61, began his law career as an associate of a corporate commercial law firm before specializing in aboriginal law. He was appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, now the Superior Court of Justice, in 1994. 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.