By Lloyd Dolha
Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) has relaunched a commission to look into the history of residential schools in Canada through the sharing of stories of survivor’s experiences with the aim of helping survivors heal. On June 10th, INAC minister Chuck Strahl announced the appointment of Justice Murray Sinclair as chair to head up the revamped Truth and Reconcilliation Commission. Strahl’s announcement came one day before the first anniversary of the Tory federal government’s historic apology to Canada’s First Nations for the atrocities committed at the Indian residential schools.
The Truth and Reconcilliation Commission’s mandate is to inform all Canadians about the truth of what happened at the schools. The commission was created as part of the court-approved $1.9 billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiated in 2006. The landmark settlement was finalized in March 2007, after months of intense negotiations between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the federal government, churches, former students, and other aboriginal organizations.
About 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend Canada’s 130 residential schools from the late 1800’s to 1996, when the last school closed. Only about 80,000 former students are still living, and that number decreases daily. The commission will document the stories of survivors, their families, and communities. During the next five years, the commission will create an accurate historical record regarding the policies and operations of the schools, as well as what happened to the children who attended them. The commission will host seven national gatherings across Canada to promote public awareness and complete a public report that will include recommendations to all parties of the settlement agreement. It will also establish a national research centre as a permanent resource for all Canadians.
The commission’s work stalled last year with the October resignation of Justice Harry Laforme, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge. He cited major differences between himself and commissioners Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley. In his resignation letter, Laforme said the panel was “on the verge of paralysis” because his fellow commissioners did not share his vision or accept his authority.
In the meantime, the commission has already become a source of controversy. Former Nunavut commissioner and politician Peter Irniq says it’s essential that one of the truth commissioners appointed be Inuit. He warned of significant support for an Inuit boycott of commission hearings unless an Inuit commissioner is appointed. Irniq said its essential that one of the commissioners speaks the Inuit language to understand the unique experience of the Inuit people in the residential schools. Two residential schools operated in the Western Artic and Irniq estimates that about 1,000 Inuit survivors who attended the schools are still alive.
The AFN welcomed the appointment of Justice Sinclair, saying the commission will be an important vehicle to advance the national goal of fostering healing and reconciliation by building greater understanding among Canadians. “I know Mr. Justice Sinclair personally and professionally,” said AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine. “His experience as a judge and scholar and his strong understanding of his culture and traditions will ensure he brings the expertise, insight, and sensitivity that will be so important to the work of the commission.” Justice Sinclair was the first aboriginal judge appointed to the bench in Manitoba in 1988 and was one of the co-chairs of Manitoba’s groundbreaking Aboriginal Justice Inquiry. An Ojibway, Sinclair was raised on St. Peter’s First Nation near Selkirk, Manitoba. Also tapped for the commission was Marie Sinclair, an educator, award-winning journalist, and regional executive in both the public broadcast and public service sectors. She brings a deep personal knowledge of the residential schools legacy through her immediate family and community ties. Wilton Littlechild, Alberta’s regional vice-chief for the AFN will round out the three-member panel. A former residential school student himself, Littlechild was the first treaty Indian to receive a law degree from the University of Alberta in 1976.