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Commission chairman’s resignation to be reviewed by the courts

TORONTO – Dismay and concern have greeted the dramatic resignation of the chair of Canada’s Indian Residential School Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Justice Harry LaForme cited irreconcilable differences with his two fellow commissioners when he stepped down as chair of the body that has a five-year mandate to raise awareness of what happened to aboriginal children in Canadian residential schools and embark on a healing process.

It’s urgent that the commission get on with its job – of telling the story of what happened to the children who were abused in residential schools and embarking on a healing process, said Mike Cachagee, interim executive director of the National Residential Schools Survivors’ Society.

Every day, the most elderly survivors are dying with their stories untold, he said. “The ones that went through the roughest years are the ones we need to hear. The schools in latter years were more like European boarding schools … the ones that went to those old schools, they were basically indentured servants.”

The commission was established as part of a $1.9 billion settlement of a class action lawsuit on behalf of 150,000 children who were forcibly separated from their families. Some 80,000 of them are still living.

Many were physically and sexually abused, and their children and grandchildren continue to pay the price of the brutal attempt to eradicate indigenous cultures and social structures. In June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a historic apology for a shameful chapter in Canada’s history.

“This painful decision did not come easily to me,” Harry LaForme, an Ontario appeal court justice and member of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, wrote in his Oct. 20 letter of resignation to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.

He said the other two commissioners – Claudette Dumont-Smith of the Algonquin community of Kitigan Zibi, Québec, and British Columbia lawyer Jane Brewin Morley – refused to recognize his leadership and accept that their role was to provide advice and assistance.

He said the two “have come to show disrespect for me, personally and as chair,” instead insisting on a majority rule, even retaining legal counsel to try and force LaForme to agree to their demands. This, he said, put the commission on the verge of paralysis.

LaForme criticized the two commissioners for being focused on the “truth” aspect of the mandate at the expense of reconciliation – “the restoration of balance to the relationship between our country’s aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.”

Dumont-Smith said she was shocked to read LaForme’s letter. “I’m very disappointed and very saddened because I think he was the person for the job and I have great respect for him even to this day.”

She said that the two commissioners may have had differing interpretations of their mandate, but she didn’t believe this was something that couldn’t have been overcome. “In retrospect, I think right at the beginning we should have locked ourselves in a room for three days and talked.”

Instead, she said, the commissioners met infrequently, only six times in the five months since the commission was established by the Canadian government. Their last meeting was Aug. 26.

Dumont-Smith said she doesn’t think she ever said that she wanted to emphasize truth over reconciliation. “To me they’re both equally important.”

She said she, too, is concerned that the elderly survivors be heard from. The commission will continue its work, with the first national event set for January in British Columbia. “We may want to get something before the year is up, just to hear from the elderly.”

A spokesperson for Strahl said LaForme’s resignation will have to be reviewed by the courts. “Justice LaForme has cited both personal and professional reasons,” Ted Yeomans said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, a court-appointed mediator was not able to reconcile differences between the chair and the two commissioners.”

Meanwhile, controversy swirls around the commission that couldn’t even reconcile itself, with some concurring with the view that the chair should have prevailed and others arguing that consensus is the aboriginal way.

Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief John Beaucage called for dismissal of the two remaining commissioners and a fresh start. “First Nations have lost confidence in the commission as it is presently constituted.”

National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations urged that the government consult with the AFN to appoint a replacement for LaForme without delay.

Dumont-Smith said she plans to continue to discharge her responsibilities and will abide by what the parties to the settlement want: “This is not about me.”

Cachagee paid tribute to LaForme as “a very honorable person with a high degree of integrity and conviction.” He noted that LaForme had warned that he would not tolerate interference. “Where was the interference coming from? I think it’s more internal than external.”

The commission was set up by the Canadian government without any involvement of survivor groups, he added. Had there been involvement, he said, LaForme might have been more cautious regarding a couple of appointments that did not sit well in Indian country.

One was his selection as commission counsel of Owen Young, a lawyer who acted for the Ontario government in the mining dispute that ended in the jailing of Algonquin leader Bob Lovelace and the chief and council of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug.

The other was the appointment of federal civil servant Aideen Nabigon as executive director of the commission. Her situation, as a non-aboriginal woman who has Indian status through marriage, is a painful reminder to female survivors who lost their status through marriage, Cachagee said.