TRC commissioners face ‘daunting’ task

"We have a credibility issue... We have to overcome a lot of hurdles," says TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair. Photo: Marites N. Sison
"We have a credibility issue... We have to overcome a lot of hurdles," says TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published September 1, 2009

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will consult churches, aboriginal groups and government representatives on how best to involve Canadians in documenting the 150-year legacy of Indian residential schools.

The Ottawa-based TRC is also looking at moving some of its operations into areas more accessible to former students and those who operated native boarding schools.

In an interview, the new chair of the TRC, Justice Murray Sinclair, described the Commission’s task as “daunting” after being hobbled by the resignations of the former commissioners.”We have a credibility issue,” said Mr. Sinclair. “We have to overcome a lot of hurdles. I think one of the most sacred trusts that exists is to accept the responsibility of [hearing] somebody’s story and doing the right thing with it and about it.”

Mr. Sinclair and the two other commissioners – Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild – were appointed by the federal government on June 10. Mr. Sinclair succeeds Justice Harry LaForme, who resigned last October, following a power struggle with two other commissioners, who resigned in January.

“Regaining the momentum will be easier than regaining the goodwill,” said Mr. Sinclair, underscoring the need for the TRC to re-energize not just parties to the agreement, but also the Canadian public.

“We’re looking at how to engage…in the reconciliation process at national levels…because we think it’s important there be a representative process that all Canadians feel part of,” said Mr. Sinclair. “We’re not likely going to get to all Canadians, but we do need to demonstrate…that this can be put behind us and we can move on.”

From the mid-19th to the 20th century, churches – including the Anglican Church of Canada – operated 130 schools for more than 150,000 native, Métis and Inuit children. These schools were part of the government’s policy of forced assimilation. Many former students sued the government and churches, citing loss of language and culture as well as physical and sexual abuse.

“Most of the schools were in Western Canada; that speaks of the need to consider having a Western Canada presence,” said Mr. Sinclair, adding that the TRC needs to be accessible to the Métis and Inuit population, too.

On July 16, representatives of national churches, aboriginal groups and the federal government gathered at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., for a welcoming ceremony for the new commissioners.

Archbishop Terence Finlay, the Anglican Church of Canada’s special envoy on residential schools, described the ceremony as “a very holy moment.”

Mr. Sinclair is a respected Manitoba judge who grew up on the former St. Peter’s Indian Reserve north of Selkirk, Man. He was appointed the Associate Chief Justice of the provincial court of Manitoba in 1988, becoming the first native judge in Manitoba and the second in Canada. His appointment has been applauded by those familiar with his astute legal mind, his ability to handle sensitive public proceedings, and his credibility in both aboriginal and non-aboriginal circles.

Chief Littlechild is Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. A former residential school student, he is a strong advocate for indigenous people’s rights. In 1976, he became the first Treaty First Nations person to receive his law degree from the University of Alberta.

Ms. Wilson is a former regional director of CBC North, and has worked in cross-cultural environments in Canada and overseas as an educator, journalist, broadcast trainer, and regional executive in both public broadcast and public service sectors.


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