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Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair resigns

Commission to go ahead as planned: commissioners

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The chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission resigned Monday, citing an “incurable problem” that could lead the commission to failure.

Justice Harry S. LaForme, an aboriginal judge with the Ontario Court of Appeal, was appointed to head Canada’s first national TRC, which will allow survivors of residential schools to put share their experiences publicly through truth-sharing and statement taking.

Though appointed as the chair, he was to serve alongside two other commissioners: Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley.

In a letter to Chuck Strahl, federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs, LaForme blamed those commissioners for making the TRC unworkable.

“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 authority and leadership of its Chair,” he said in a letter to Strahl.

LaForme wrote in the letter that he had ongoing conflicts with the two commissioners, who “repeatedly and openly” rejected the idea that the commission’s course was his to shape, according to the letter.

“The two have chosen to compete for control of the Commission by insisting that it is to be run on the basis of simple majority rule,” he wrote. “Efforts on my part and on the part of others to move the Commission away from their position towards one that would restore functionality and respect have been futile.”

LaForme also wrote that the commissioners saw the TRC as “primarily a truth commission” and didn’t put enough emphasis on reconciliation.

Both commissioners were surprised at LaForme’s resignation.

Morley, a Victoria lawyer and the only non-aboriginal member appointed to the commission, said she was saddened by LaForme’s decision and that she hadn’t met with him since an Aug. 26 meeting.

When asked about LaForme’s allegations, she said that both truth and reconciliation are important components for the commission.

“I honestly don’t know where that comes from,” she said. “I believe that truth telling is central… I think that’s very important. I also think it’s important that it’s a forward-looking process and that it is about reconciliation, including on a national level between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”

Dumont-Smith, a Quebec Algonquin and health advisor to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, was also saddened by LaForme’s departure but also taken aback because she, too, hadn’t met with him since Aug. 26.

“I thought we were moving along, maybe slowly, but we were moving along,” she said. “It’s business as usual for us because there’s too much at stake to stop things midway.”

Dumont-Smith said the first of the TRC’s national events is set to take place in British Columbia in January, though she could not say when or where.

Asked whether LaForme’s resignation could affect the timing of that event, she said she thinks it can still go on as planned.

“Plans have begun and I don’t think that will change unless something really extraordinary happens again,” she said.

Neither could say when another chair would be appointed.

A spokesman for Strahl issued a statement Monday saying that a court-appointed mediator tried to reconcile the differences between LaForme and the commissioners — efforts that ultimately proved fruitless.

“The courts will now review Justice LaForme’s decision,” he said in a written statement.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the biggest class action settlement in Canadian history. Parties to the agreement include legal counsel for former students, churches, the Government of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal organizations, according to the TRC website.

The residential school system operated in Canada starting around 1874. For much of their history they were church-run, government-funded schools that aimed to teach aboriginal children in English and orient them into Canadian society.

Though some students spoke positively of their experiences at residential school, many fell victim to various forms of abuse and neglect.

On June 11 this year in the House of Commons Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal apology on behalf of the Government of Canada for the legacy of residential schools.

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