Thursday, November 20, 2008

Residential schools commission needs to get back on track

Residential schools commission needs to get back on track

There is perhaps no sadder case in Canada's history than Indian residential schools.
The schools were part of a federal policy started in the first years after Canada was founded to assimilate aboriginals into the increasingly dominant population of white, Christian European immigrants.
Working with churches that were already established throughout Canada as part of their missionary work, Ottawa built the residential schools and paid churches on a per capita basis to take in native children and teach them a mix of agricultural skills and traditional schooling.
Residential schools broke up tens of thousands of native families as children, against their parents' wishes, were sent away to receive an education controlled by whites. More than that, thousands died of disease, neglect and abuse; many were buried, largely unmourned, in unmarked graves, mostly without their parents' knowledge or permission.
As the horrors of residential schools came to light in more recent years, its survivors sued and on May 10, 2006, the federal government announced the approval by all parties for the largest class action settlement in Canadian history, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The agreement, among other things, called for at least $1.9-billion to be paid out to the survivors and establishment of what's now known as the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission has a five-year mandate and a $60-million budget.
The commission's work got off to a promising start when the federal government appointed Harry LaForme, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge, as one of its three commissioners. LaForme was an ideal choice because he is not only an experienced and highly respected jurist, he is also native and understands, firsthand, the impact of racism.
Unfortunately, LaForme quit last month in a dispute over who is to control the commission and what its objectives are. LaForme said it was his impression he was to lead the commission and the other commissioners ---Jane Brewin Morley and Claudette Dumont- Smith -- were to assist and report to him, but they refused to accept his authority.
He also said Morley and Dumont- Smith put too much stress on the "truth" aspect of the commission -- documenting and telling the stories of survivors -- and not enough on "reconciliation."
When he quit, LaForme, through a spokesman, cited interference from the Assembly of First Nations and national chief Phil Fontaine as part of the reason he stepped down. He said Fontaine wanted a commission centred on telling the stories of survivors, rather than reconciliation.
In response, the federal government asked former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci to try and rescue the process. He met with the various parties earlier this month, and they agreed to meet again in the near future.

Let's hope Ottawa, the survivors and native leaders can get it right this time. They need to clarify how the commission is supposed to work, and to strike the right balance between truth and reconciliation.
These sorts of commissions can do wonders, as witnessed in South Africa and Rwanda. They helped the people of those nations get to the truth of what happened there (apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda), but also to heal and to forgive.
Until all Canadians -- natives and non-native alike -- understand what happened and how it happened, we can never move forward, and only a properly charged and structured truth and reconciliation commission can do that.
Article ID# 1303479

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