Chairman quits troubled residential-school commission

The judge at the helm of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission has resigned, citing major differences between himself and the two other commissioners of the organization.

Accuses two fellow commissioners of not heeding his authority

The leader of a commission charged with chronicling the dark history of Canada's residential schools resigned on Monday, citing major differences between himself and his two commissioners.

Harry LaForme, an Ontario Court of Appeal judge who has chaired the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission since April, said in his resignation letter that the panel is "on the verge of paralysis" because his commissioners do not share his vision or accept his authority.

He said the commissioners — native health expert Claudette Dumont-Smith and lawyer Jane Brewin Morley — want to focus primarily on uncovering and documenting truth while he also wants to have an emphasis on reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

LaForme also accused the commissioners of wanting to make decisions by majority rule even though they were appointed to simply offer advice and assistance.

"At the heart of it is an incurable problem," LaForme said in his letter to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, which he made public in a press release.

"The two commissioners are unprepared to accept that the structure of the commission requires that the commission's course is to be charted and its objectives are to be shaped ultimately through the authority and leadership of its chair."

Neither LaForme nor the commissioners spoke to the media Monday.

Mediator tried to resolve differences

Ted Yeomans, a spokesman for Strahl, said a court-appointed mediator had tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the differences between LaForme and the commissioners. 

Yeomans said LaForme's resignation is now being reviewed, and no decision has yet been made on how to move forward, although the government remains committed to the commission.

"It is disappointing that Justice LaForme will be stepping down," Yeomans said in a written statement.

"He has provided strong direction for the commission in its early days and we thank him for his dedication to this very important subject."

LaForme had spoken out about his concerns with the commission in the summer, expressing fear that political and bureaucratic interference could compromise the panel. He said his team, not the government, must be allowed to decide how to spend the commission's $60-million budget. 

At the time, he said the interference was delaying the start of the commission.

But in an interview last week with CBC News, LaForme expressed confidence that the problems were being resolved. He seemed optimistic about the commission.

"We needed to have the flexibility to do what we thought was important … to move that money very quickly," he said last week. "I don't feel any longer that we are being micro-managed."

Aboriginal leaders dismayed

Aboriginal leaders spoke out on Monday, voicing fear that LaForme's resignation would derail the commission's work.

"We're disappointed that Justice LaForme resigned," said Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations. "We need a functioning truth commission so that survivors can tell their stories.

"I think we need to move ahead quickly. We need to find a replacement."

About 150,000 aboriginal children attended Canada's 130 residential schools from the late 1800s to 1996, when the last school closed. About 80,000 former students are still alive, but an estimated five or six die every day.

Native leaders say the commission must work quickly to gather former students' stories before it's too late.

"How many survivors are we going to lose through death?" asked Michael Cachagee of the National Residential School Survivors' Society. "How many will never be heard from? … It's too bad."

Many former students say they were subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse while attending residential schools. Often, they were forced to attend the federally funded, church-run institutions against their will. Once there, they were taught English and encouraged to adopt Christian customs under a government policy called "aggressive assimilation."

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as the 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.

The commission, which was established in June with the aim of completing its work in five years, is not charged with determining innocence or guilt but with creating a historical account of the residential schools, helping people to heal and encouraging reconciliation.

A year ago, the government formalized a $1.9-billion compensation plan for victims, and in June, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a historic apology for the residential school system, calling it a "sad chapter" of Canadian history.

With files from the Canadian Press