3 new members named to Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl named three new members Wednesday to a revamped Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will probe the assimilation and abuse aboriginal children faced at residential schools across Canada.

Commission has 5 years to deliver report on Indian Residential Schools

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl named three new members Wednesday to a revamped Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which will probe the assimilation and abuse aboriginal children faced at residential schools across Canada.

Justice Murray Sinclair of Manitoba will chair a panel that is being revived after months of internal wrangling among its former members, who all resigned last year.

Sinclair, who became Manitoba's first aboriginal judge when he was appointed associate chief justice of its provincial court in 1988, is also known for co-chairing an inquiry into the treatment of aboriginal people in that province's justice system.

"It's a daunting task, almost scary," Sinclair told CBC News. "I don't think there's any greater honour that an individual can have in life than to be able to help somebody else." 

On the truth commission, Sinclair will work with Marie Wilson, a former journalist and CBC North regional director from Yellowknife, and Wilton Littlechild, Alberta regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Survivors urge commissioners to 'remember who they represent'

After months of irreconcilable differences within the commission, former residential school students, aboriginal leaders and church leaders greeted the announcement with cautious optimism, hoping it will signal a fresh start and a new path to healing.

"The message I want to send to them is to remember who they represent — human beings who had been attempted to be dehumanized by the government system," Willie Blackwater, head of the National Association of Residential School Survivors told CBC News.

"We are traumatized people who are just crawling out of our horrors and … we need a place to share stories that's safe."

The Assembly of First Nations welcomed the new commissioners, saying in a news release that it's eager to see them "begin its work as soon as possible."

"I know Mr. Justice Sinclair personally and professionally, and his experience as a judge and scholar and his strong understanding of his culture and traditions will ensure he brings the expertise, insight and sensitivity that will be so important to the work of this commission," AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine said in the release.

But the revived commission might run into a possible boycott by Inuit, led by longtime Nunavut leader Peter Irniq.

Earlier this week, Irniq said it's essential that one of the commissioners be able to speak the Inuit language and understand the unique experience of Inuit people and their history with residential schools.

None of the commissioners appointed Wednesday are Inuit.

Internal dispute stalls panel's initial work

The commission, which now is expected to finish its work by 2014, has been stalled since its chairman, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned 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, whom he said refused to accept his authority as chairman and were disrespectful.

Commissioners Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley denied the charge and at first tried to stay on in what many observers said was supposed to be a process based on consensus.

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

Strahl called the initial setbacks and lost time "regrettable" but said he's confident that Sinclair will proceed with input from his co-commissioners.

Strahl extended the $60-million commission's initial timeline by one year to make up for the delays. He said he believes its budget is adequate for now.

The salary range for commissioners is $160,600-$188,900 a year.

They will hold seven national events to collect stories from former students that range from good memories to horrific accounts of physical and sexual abuse.

One year since historic government apology

Strahl announced the revived forum on the eve of a national day of reconciliation to mark the one-year anniversary of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's formal apology for decades of racist government policy meant to "kill the Indian in the child."

About 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government schools over much of the last century.

The last school closed outside Regina in 1996. About 85,000 former students are still living.

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.

It was created as a result of the court-approved Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that was negotiated in 2006 between former students, churches, the federal government, the Assembly of First Nations and other aboriginal organizations.

Former Supreme Court of Canada justice Frank Iacobucci was a key craftsman of the historic settlement agreement, which includes the five-year, $60-million reconciliation process.

Under the settlement, former students have been offered blanket compensation averaging $28,000, although payments will be higher for the more serious cases of abuse, which will be handled by an out-of-court adjudication process.

With files from The Canadian Press