TORONTO – The two commissioners who were blamed by the chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission for his resignation have now decided to move on.
Jane Brewin Morley and Claudette Dumont-Smith issued a news release Jan. 31 announcing their intention to resign, effective June 1.
Justice Harry LaForme resigned Oct. 20, citing his colleagues’ refusal to acknowledge his leadership as a “betrayal of trust.” They reject his “perception” of their actions.
While the job description for commissioners at the time of LaForme’s departure spelled out the leadership position of the chair and the support responsibilities of his two colleagues, a “clarification” under a new process overseen by retired Judge Frank Iacobucci calls for consensual decision-making, says a member of the committee that will choose the replacement commissioners.
The TRC is part of a 2006 settlement that ended a class action launched by residential school survivors against the federal government and the churches. Part of its mission is to close the divide between an aboriginal population still traumatized by the disruption to families and communities, and mainstream Canadian society, largely unaware of the details of what happened.
Iacobucci was appointed federal facilitator in the wake of LaForme’s departure. He said in a Jan. 31 news release that the selection committee’s work to replace the commissioners will begin “as soon as practically possible.”
No one at the TRC or the Indian Affairs department was willing to comment on whether the June 1 timing of the commissioners’ resignations is an indication that there won’t be a new commission in place until then.
The apparent delay is being greeted with dismay by groups like the National Residential School Survivors Society, who called for the immediate resignation of Brewin Morley and Dumont-Smithi.
In an interview, Mike Cachagee of the NRSSS said survivors are dying – it’s estimated at the rate of five or six a day – and their stories will be lost, inevitably sanitizing what Canadians will hear.
That’s because the worst abuses occurred in the early years of the system. “It’s the oldest survivors who suffered the greatest harm. They were basically indentured slaves. The kids never went to school, they worked all day clearing the land and looking after the farm.”
About 150,000 aboriginal children attended residential schools. About 80,000 former students are still alive.
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and a member of the selection committee, said she doesn’t know what the timelines are, but she plans to move matters ahead as quickly as possible.
“Ultimately it’s really the minister that makes the decision,” she said, referring to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. “It’s really not under our control in terms of the final decision – that’s the way it was set up in the settlement agreement.”
She said she would like an Innu or someone familiar with the Arctic to be one of the commissioners. “As long as our voices are being heard and are being considered in the final decision, that’s what’s really important.”
In a joint news release the two commissioners said they regretted they would not serve out their five-year terms. “However, we have become convinced that the time has come for us to step aside.”
TRC spokesperson Kimberly Phillips said the commissioners will not be speaking to the media. “A great deal of work continues to be done so that when a new chair is appointed, we will be ready to move forward with scheduling TRC activities as per our mandate.”
She added that the TRC secretariat is putting in place a process to accept statements from anyone affected by the legacy of residential schools and is also near the end of a process to select 10 members of an Indian Residential Schools Survivor Committee, which will advise the TRC.
The selection committee to pick the new commissioners is made up of six people, with Iacobucci as the chair:
• Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, the only member who is a residential school survivor.
• Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
• Michael Wernick, deputy minister of Indian Affairs, representing Canada.
• Rev. James Scott, representing the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches.
• Lawyer Pierre Baribeau, representing the Catholic entities;
• Len Marchand Jr., a lawyer who helped negotiate the settlement agreement on behalf of former students, and a member of the Okanagan Indian Band. His father, Senator Len Marchand, attended residential school.
The terms of the settlement agreement ensure that government and churches play a continuing role in the affairs of the TRC.
The TRC’s mandate states that it is not a commission of inquiry and does not possess subpoena powers. When it finally gets underway, it will not be holding hearings, but seven “national events.”
It cannot make findings of misconduct unless those have been established through previous legal proceedings or by admission, and it cannot identify people without their consent. And evidence of the name or identity of a person who has committed wrongdoing must be taken in camera and the commission shall not record or release it.
“The whole thing seems to be to silence more than to disclose,” said former United Church minister Kevin Annett.
That’s a view rejected by Scott, a selection committee member and United Church minister, who described the legacy of the residential school system as a “tragic chapter in our collective history.”
The TRC represents a significant and unique opportunity for “truth-telling, healing and reconciliation and that’s what we want the focus to be on,” he said.
In an attempt to avoid the divisions that plagued the first commissioners, Scott said their responsibilities have been clarified. “There are still some ways in which the chair does play a leadership role, but it’s being more clearly articulated that on issues of vision and implementation that it is hoped that the three commissioners will work consensually and collaboratively together.”