Iacobucci to help truth and reconciliation commission move forward

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The major task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to gather the testimonies of former residential school students and to educate Canadians about residential schools. Photo: General Synod Archives 
The major task of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is to gather the testimonies of former residential school students and to educate Canadians about residential schools. Photo: General Synod Archives 

Former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci has agreed to act as facilitator to the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), in the wake of the sudden resignation on Oct. 20 of its chair, Justice Harry LaForme.Counsel for parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), including the Anglican Church of Canada, announced that Mr. Iacobucci would assist the parties in “moving forward.”

Mr. Iacobucci represented the federal government in the negotiations that led to the signing of the residential schools agreement in May 2006.”Justice Iacobucci has, through his work on the IRSSA, made an enormous contribution towards achieving a fair, comprehensive and lasting resolution of the legacy of Indian Residential Schools,” said a joint statement of the lawyers representing government, native groups, and churches, which are party to the agreement.

The lawyers are scheduled to meet with Mr. Iacobucci on Friday, Nov. 7.Various groups, including the Anglican Church of Canada, expressed concern that Mr. La Forme’s resignation would further delay the truth-gathering process involving former students of native boarding schools, most of whom are now elderly.

Mr. LaForme said he resigned because of an “incurable problem” that doomed the TRC “as currently constituted” to failure.Mr. LaForme, who was chosen as chair on April 28, said that the TRC was “on the verge of paralysis” because the two commissioners have “repeatedly and openly rejected” his authority and vision for the commission.

“The two commissioners are unprepared to accept that the structure of the commission requires that the TRC’s course is to be charted and its objectives are to be shaped ultimately through the leadership and authority of its chair,” said Mr. LaForme in a letter to Chuck Strahl, the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development. He added that the two commissioners – Jane Brewin-Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith – do not share his interpretation that the TRC’s mandate emphasizes reconciliation. He said that they “see the TRC as primarily a truth commission. Unlike mine, theirs is a view that leaves much of the work of reconciliation for another day.” Ms. Brewin-Morley and Ms. Dumont-Smith have reacted to Mr. La Forme’s allegations with shock, saying they could have resolved internally whatever differences he thought they might have had.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said it was “unfortunate” that Mr. LaForme resigned. “It appears that they (commissioners) had difficulty working together. I’m concerned about that in itself, but my deeper concern is that it represents a delay in the commission being able to go ahead in its mandate to record and preserve the stories of residential school survivors,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “My heart goes out to them.”He said that for many former residential schools students, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology last June and the creation of the TRC were “signs of hope for their healing and journey to a new life.”

Archbishop Hiltz said that the Anglican church would “do all that we can” to engage the government in finding a resolution to the matter. (The Anglican church operated 26 of 80 boarding schools attended by aboriginal children from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. In recent years, hundreds of natives sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.)

Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said it was urgent to find a replacement for Mr. LaForme. “We can’t afford to delay the process any longer. The average age of a residential schools survivor is 65. They’re dying at a rate of four a day,” Mr. Fontaine told the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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. 

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