Bernard Valcourt, minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, announced today that his office is working out the details of an agreement that will allow the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) to operate for an additional year.
The federal government will work with the TRC, the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, and the Ontario Superior Court to extend the Commission’s term until June 30, 2015, as requested by the Commission, said Valcourt in a press statement.
The additional year, Valcourt said, would give the TRC time to complete its mandate, including writing its final report and receiving documents from Library and Archives Canada. Details such as the amount of funding that will be provided are still being worked out, said a spokesperson from the minister’s office.
Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the TRC, told the Anglican Journal that although the extension was necessary, it was not good news. “Our hope always had been that we would complete the work of the commission within the time we were given,” he said.
Sinclair explained that if the government had provided the relevant documents from the Library and Archives Canada (LAC), the TRC commissioners would have been pleased to end their work in July 2014 as planned. “It is unfortunate for us that we now have to continue to do this work for another year, but at the same time, it is necessary, so we’re prepared to do it.”
Until an Ontario Superior Court decision last January, the federal government’s position had been that it was not obligated by the residential schools settlement agreement to turn over documents from the Library and Archives Canada collection.
Sinclair said Justice Stephen Goudge’s decision means that the government now has to give the commission what amounts to millions of documents that have to be sorted through and analyzed. The government, he said, requested more time to provide the documents, which in turn meant that the TRC needed more time to analyze them.
“Our concern is now, as it has been all along, is that we are losing survivors every day. The average age of survivors of residential schools is now close to 70 and they’re not in the best of health,” Sinclair said. “It’s unfortunate for those survivors who we are going to lose in the immediate period up until the end of the extension period, are not going to be able to see the results of our work, but for their families we hope to be able to do this important job.” He added that the TRC believes that the LAC documents are “necessary for us to be able to tell the full and complete story of residential schools in this country.”
The TRC national and regional events that have been held across the country are finished except for an Alberta national event in March and the closing ceremony, said Sinclair. No additional events of that kind are being planned, although the commissioners will attend community events to which they are invited as they are able, he said.
The work that remains ahead for the TRC, he said, includes setting up the National Research Center and analyzing the documents it receives. The TRC will continue to receive survivor statements and will also be engaging in public education processes such as dialogues with groups such as academics and elders on reconciliation.
The Anglican Church of Canada’s National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald welcomed news of the extension in a qualified way. “I think it is very good. I would like to add, however, that it seems to me that this is the minimum of what could be done to really enter into the full spirit of reconciliation.”
Nancy Hurn, General Synod archivist of the Anglican Church of Canada, said, “Both the General Synod Archives and the rest of the diocesan archives across Canada are working to meet the original deadline,” but she acknowledged that the extension may provide a “bit more time to ensure we meet the terms of the settlement agreement.”
Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he could see several benefits in extending the work of the TRC. “It keeps the issue of truth and reconciliation in the public eye for additional year, giving an opportunity for more Canadians to be come aware of and a part of the response to the legacy of the schools,” he said “It allows the government, Library and Archives Canada time to process its documents for the TRC; it had looked like that wasn’t going to happen in time. And I think it allows us to continue to be inside a particular framework that will carry the conversation forward with our ecumenical partners.”
Created as part of the settlement agreement, the TRC’s mandate is to document the 130-year history of residential schools and to educate Canadians about it. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, about 150,000 First Nations. Inuit and Metis children were put into residential schools across Canada as part of the government’s policy of assimilation. Many of them were physically, emotionally and sexually abused in these schools.
The Anglican Church of Canada, which is a signatory to the agreement, operated 35 of these schools.