New-look reconciliation commission settling into Winnipeg

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation commission is settling in to its new home — and name — in Winnipeg.

Canada's residential schools commission is settling in to its new home — and name — in Winnipeg.

New chief commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair recently moved the headquarters of the commission from Ottawa to the 15th floor of the Trizec building at Winnipeg's famed Portage and Main intersection.

The commission has also changed its name from the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission to now be known as Truth and Reconciliation Canada (TRC). It is all symbolic of a new start and new hope, said Sinclair.

"The one thing about the view I really love is the sight of The Forks and the rivers because they have such a long and strong tradition in the history of our people in this part of country," he said.

"We're also at an important intersection in the geography of this country so Portage and Main, for that reason as well, our presence here is a statement that we are now part of the West and the part of the country where the majority of survivors are located.

"That's not to say we are going to ignore survivors elsewhere, but we felt right from the beginning that having only a presence in Ottawa was not right."

The offices are still sparse. Books are stacked on the floor and half of the space is still bare concrete.

Sinclair is working out of the location but making do with a small desk surrounded by lines on the floor, marking where cubicle walls will soon be erected.

It should be fully renovated by March, when it will house 40 workers at 27 workstations and 10 offices. It will also have a boardroom and survivors' room where former residential school students will tell their stories.

"We know it's a very, very significant job but we're all excited [and] very, very pleased and honoured to be given this opportunity to make this contribution," said Tom McMahon, TRC executive director.

"And in five years, we shut the lights off and we all disappear. But these bare walls and windows [now] talk about our future possibilities for this commission and maybe for the country. It's very exciting."

Plagued by controversy

The five-year mandate of the commission, which has been plagued by delays and controversy, is to probe the assimilation and abuse aboriginal children faced at residential schools across Canada in the 20th century.

The commission is the first of its kind in the world to focus specifically on abuse against children of a specific race.

Now expected to finish its work by 2014, it was stalled after Justice Harry LaForme resigned as chairman on Oct. 20, 2008, six months into his mandate.

In his resignation letter, LaForme wrote that the commission was on the verge of paralysis and doomed to failure. He cited an "incurable problem" with the other two commissioners — Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley — whom he said refused to accept his authority as chairman and were disrespectful.

Both women later resigned to clear the slate for an entirely new commission.

New chair and commissioners named

In June, Sinclair was named as chair, along with commissioners Marie Wilson, a senior executive with the N.W.T. workers compensation commission, and Wilton Littlechild, Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.

Sinclair, a judge in Manitoba who became the province's first aboriginal associate chief justice in 1988, was raised on St. Peter's reserve in the Selkirk area north of Winnipeg and is a residential school survivor.

In 2006, a court-approved Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement offered former students blanket compensation averaging $28,000, although payments were to be higher for more serious cases of abuse.

The truth commission was established to provide survivors with an opportunity to share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate manner, as well as establish a historical account of the government-funded residential schools system.

National events planned

The TRC's first national event is scheduled to take place June 15 to 19 in Winnipeg. It will be the first time former students will be able to formally tell their stories to the commission.

The event will take place at The Forks market, a historical gathering place for aboriginal people, according to the TRC website.

The Winnipeg event is the first of seven the TRC will hold over the next five years. Subsequent events will take place in Alberta, British Columbia, the Maritimes, Northern Canada, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.

In the coming weeks, the TRC will be releasing information as to how people, especially former residential school students, can participate in the Winnipeg event.