TRC back on track with new appointments.
On the same day that Willie Blackwater was in Ottawa attending anniversary celebrations to mark the June 11, 2008 government apology to residential school survivors, he also participated in a ceremony recognizing the work undertaken by two former members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley announced their resignations in late January to take effect June 1. A new group of commissioners will take up their duties July 1.
Replacements for commissioners Dumont-Smith and Morley, as well as for chair Justice Harry LaForme, who tendered his resignation in October 2008, were announced June 10 by the federal government.
The new chair of the commission is Justice Murray Sinclair. Wilton Littlechild and Marie Wilson have been appointed commissioners. "We're all praying that this (new membership) is going to work," said Blackwater, president of the National Residential School Survivors Society. "We have trust in the way of the Creator and trust that it will work."
Sinclair comes with an impressive resume, said Marlene Brant Castellano, a professor emeritus with Trent University's Indigenous Studies department.
"He's very highly regarded in the Aboriginal community and has stature in Canadian society with the work he has done."
Sinclair is a member of the Three Fires Society and a Third Degree Member of the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine) Society of the Ojibway. He was the first Aboriginal judge in Manitoba.
While Castellano has no personal experience with either Littlechild or "Wilson, she is encouraged by their selections as well.
Littlechild is from Maskawacis Cree Territory of Treaty No. 6 in Alberta and is the Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations. He was the first treaty First Nations person to receive his law degree from the University of Alberta in 1976. He served as Member of Parliament for Wetaskiwin from 1988 to 1993.
Wilson, a senior executive with the Northwest Territories workers compensation commission, was also a regional director for CBC North.
Castellano sees Wilsons media experience as a benefit to the commission.
"A good part of what the commission will be doing is creating a new, more respectful collaborative relationship between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals."
The Indian residential schools settlement agreement, which created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, called for at least one member of the commission to be Aboriginal. Castellano said its important also that at least one member of the commission be non-Aboriginal.
"One of the considerations of selection is that the commission not be seen to be an Aboriginal project, but a Canadian project with representation of the non-Aboriginal community as well," said Castellano, who was part of the selection committee for the initial TRC membership. She was not part of Justice Frank Iacobucci's committee in this second round, however.
In an interview earlier this year with Windspeaker, Iacobucci said clarification of job descriptions for both the chair and commissioners had been undertaken "to make sure that the roles are as clearly defined as possible to avoid any misunderstanding."
Among the issues that derailed the first commission was interpretation of the commissions mandate, as well as the powers to be wielded by the chair and commissioners. The balancing of truth and reconciliation also proved to be a bone of contention.
Both truth and reconciliation are important factors in the healing of residential school survivors, said Castellano, who co-edited a book of essays titled From Truth to Reconciliation, Transforming the Legacy of Residential Schools.
"You can't have reconciliation without the truth telling. If the truth telling stops with painful stories then we're still stuck in pain and alienation. They have to be in balance," she said.
Blackwater would like to see this new commission take over with both a welcoming ceremony, something that didn't happen the first time, and a two-or three-day orientation "so they're all on the same page regarding mandates and expectations."
The National Residential School Survivors Society is in the process of writing a letter to the new commission asking for a meeting, which will hopefully be granted for July.
"We've asked them to have a sit down with us as the voices and representatives of survivors right across Canada," said Blackwater.
The commission is part of a court-approved agreement that was negotiated in 2006 between the legal representatives of former students, churches, the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations.
The five-year, $60-million-commission is to provide former students and their families with a chance to share their experiences in a culturally-appropriate setting, and to set the historical record straight about the 150-year legacy of forced assimilation through the Indian residential schools.
In announcing the appointments, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said, "While it is regrettable that there were setbacks in the first year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its staff have been hard at work pursuing endeavors towards the fulfillment of its mandate, such as increasing communications and outreach activities, continuing dialogue with parties and survivor organizations."
Said Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, which was involved in the selection process for the commission members, "First Nations citizens and survivors across the country are eager to see the commission begin its work as soon as possible. It is important that survivors and all those involved in the schools have a chance to tell their stories. The commission will be an important vehicle to advance our national goal of reconciliation by building greater understanding among all the peoples of this land."
Blackwater is hopeful that the initial seven commission meetings that were to be held across the country will still happen, although the commission has lost a year of operation.
By Shari Narine