Truth and Reconciliation commissioners Jane Brewin Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith came to the Anglican Church of Canada General Synod office in Toronto on Feb. 13 to consult with an ecumenical group that helps the churches engage in the Truth and Reconciliation process.
The outgoing commissioners are preparing information and advice for the yet-to-be-appointed new commissioners and chair.Ms. Dumont-Smith said she felt she could speak more freely since she announced her resignation on Jan. 30 than she could in the months after Justice Harry LaForme resigned with the complaint that the two commissioners did not accept his authority as chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “To be very frank, we were in limbo from Oct. 20 until we announced our resignation,” she said. In spite of the situation, she said she felt that she and Ms. Morley have learned a lot and they want to pass that information and suggestions on to the next commissioners. “We’ve looked at the mandate inside and out of the TRC, so we have some ideas on the different aspects of it. We have some ideas on the national events, for example, we have some ideas about how the community events should take place.””One of the things that I hope comes out of this destruction – which is what I think you have to call it – is that out of that comes something better,” said Ms. Morley.
Asked why they did not resign immediately, she explained that June 1 was an estimate, “hopefully an overly cautious estimate, of how long it would take to get the new commissioners in place, and we’re basically there until the new commissioners come in.”Ms. Morley acknowledged that, although they are still commissioners, their mandate has changed because they are leaving. “One of the big concerns, of course, is that the delay means that there are survivors who are dying, who are not well, and one of the issues that has been raised and that we are talking about is whether it is appropriate for us to hear those stories and pass them on or whether, in spite of the difficulties, it is better to wait.”
Those who attended the small meeting voiced their concerns and advice for the new commissioners. Charlotte Commanda of the National Residential Schools Survivors Society said, “There are several different nations that I work with across Canada from the East Coast to the West Coast to the Northwest Territories, and we are trying to remain hopeful of the TRC but we have lost a lot of faith and a lot of hope, and we are trying to work within the different nations to build up the hope that the TRC will become what it was set out to be.”
David MacDonald, the United Church of Canada’s special advisor on residential schools, stressed the importance of adequate funding for survivor organizations: “Funding may well run out by the end of March, as I understand it, so whether or not that is totally the responsibility of the TRC or some other element of the overall agreement, I think there is no doubt; there can’t be an effective TRC process unless we ensure the fullest participation of survivors all across the country.”Esther Wesley, co-ordinator for the Anglican Healing Fund, pointed out a fundamental problem with the TRC. In her travels to many native communities where people only speak their own languages such as Cree or Inuktitut, “they have absolutely no idea about TRC,” she said. “That is where work needs to be done because they do not speak English, and TRC is not a translatable term…So you people have to work to communicate that idea somehow when it is not translatable.”
Archbishop Terence Finlay, the primate’s special envoy for residential schools with the Anglican Church of Canada, asked if the TRC would be extended by a year to compensate for the delays. “The timing of the TRC is right in the mandate,” Ms. Morley replied. “So in order for that to change it requires the parties to agree, which might be difficult if it meant more funding from the government, but then it has to go to the courts.” She added, however, that she would recommend that the time frame be extended.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.