The newly formed Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (IRSTRC) has appointed an Aboriginal chairperson to oversee its responsibilities for the next big step towards healing for Residential School survivors.
Justice Harry S. LaForme, who is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, was named in late April by Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl. He now has his work cut out for him as he begins his walk down the long five-year road to uncover the truth.
“It’s to examine and write that missing chapter in history of the Indian Residential School policy and how it was carried out and its impact on Aboriginal people from a survivor’s stand point,” Justice LaForme told the Nation.
Justice LaForme also mentioned Residential Schools as being a “threat in the development of the relationship” between Natives and non-Natives.
“Once we understand that, we can move into the future with a more accurate relationship and a healthier one,” he said.
Justice LaForme was unanimously chosen by a selection panel that included representatives of national Aboriginal organizations to be the chair from more than 300 submissions in a public call for nominations.
The IRSTRC is set up as a means for Residential School survivors to tell their stories and to hopefully educate the public about the horrible conditions many children dealt with and suffered though while being detained in the church-run schools.
Many children did not return, allegedly murdered and their bodies unceremoniously dumped into a hole in the ground, never to have had the chance for a proper burial and to allow their families to say goodbye.
The Catholic Church and the Canadian government have yet to apologize to the tens of thousands of survivors.
One of the main criticisms of the IRSTRC is the perceived lack of accountability it brings to the table for those accused of any form of wrongdoing, including sexual and mental abuse.
“There’s no reason why anybody who was engaged in any of this conduct can’t be prosecuted, it can still happen,” said LaForme. “But that isn’t what the commission is about. It’s about flushing out the history.”
He used the analogy of a painter and his canvas to illustrate the way the commission will go about its business. The canvas will start out blank; what it will look like in the end is anyone’s guess.
“We don’t need names,” he continued. “We are interested in the essence of what took place there and the why of it, but that doesn’t mean people escape liability.”
Justice LaForme said that even he is unsure of what the IRSTRC would do if faced with overwhelming proof of crimes committed at these schools as the commission is not necessarily set up to deal with those types of things.
“I’m not saying yes or no to that. My instincts are there are certain obligations we have and there are privacy laws that we must obey,” said Justice LaForme who added that there will be situations that arise that will have no precedent and therefore be harder to judge.
There is an administrative working group in place that is examining the question of how to deal with missing bodies allegedly buried on the grounds of the former schools, the last of which, White Calf Collegiate in Saskatchewan, was closed in 1998.
“We have to understand that and pursue it because it is also part of the truth,” he said.
Justice LaForme was awarded the 1997 National Aboriginal Achievement Award in the Law and Justice category. A graduate of Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, he has served on many Aboriginal-related commissions over the years, and has held titles such as Commissioner of the Indian Commission of Ontario and Chair of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal land claims.
He also taught the “Rights of Indigenous Peoples” law course at Osgoode Hall Law School in 1992 and 1993.
More recently, he became the first Aboriginal in Canada to sit on an appellate court when he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2004.
“I’m not sure there are too many people who were not affected by residential school,” said LaForme, who has aunts and uncles who went to residential school.
“I’m hopeful that they will have a voice. At the end of the day I hope that they will see that no matter how painful their stories may be, it can have a positive impact on the future,” he said.
“I don’t know whether that amounts to healing, but I hope it contributes to it. Everyone has to heal in his/her own way.”