Residential schools commission faces financial crunch
Give panel more funding or scale back its obligations, says chief commissioner
Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is facing higher than expected costs, so is calling on Ottawa to provide more funding or scale back the panel's responsibilities.
The commission was created by the federal government in 2008 with a five-year, $60-million budget to gather stories from aboriginal people across the country about the forced cultural assimilation — and, in some cases, abuse — they experienced at the church-run, government-funded schools.
The panel was also tasked with inspiring reconciliation and promoting healing among former students, many of whom have felt profound pain and anger from their experiences, as well as raising public awareness of the residential school system and establishing a research centre.
But less than four months after it was created, the commission had a setback when the chair, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned. And by January 2009, his two fellow commissioners announced they would be stepping down, too.
The three couldn't agree on whether the commission's mandate should be reconciliation or historical documentation.
They were replaced in June 2009 by new chair Murray Sinclair, a former Manitoba judge, Marie Wilson, a senior executive with the N.W.T. Workers' Safety and Compensation Commission, and Wilton Littlechild, Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
Sinclair now tells CBC News the costs of gathering former students' statements and collecting documents have been higher than anticipated.
"This commission cannot do all of the things that you've asked us to do with the resources that you've given us. Understand that and be prepared to live with it when the crunch comes," he said from his office in Winnipeg.
"So either reduce your shopping list or give us more money."
Time to 'force the issue,' says Sinclair
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan was not available for an interview.
In a statement, department officials told CBC News that if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs more money, it would have to go through the appropriate channels as a federal department.
"I think we're now … going have to force the issue a bit because we have to start making some plans, or this commission is going to run out of money before the end of its mandate," Sinclair said.
About 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in more than 130 residential schools across Canada from the late 1870s until the last school closed in 1996.
The government-funded, church-run schools were part of Ottawa's plan to force the assimilation of young aboriginal people into European-Canadian society.
Many students were forbidden to speak their native languages or otherwise engage in their culture at the schools. Some also reported experiencing physical and sexual abuse.
The commission was formed by the federal government in 2008, around the same time that a formal apology was issued in the House of Commons for the abuses people suffered at residential schools.
Created as part of settlement
The commission was created under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached between the federal government, aboriginal groups and former students.
Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus, also the Northwest Territories regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations — one of the parties to the settlement agreement — urged the federal government to fulfil its committments to the commission.
"I think the federal government has to be pushed to understand that they went into this agreement fully knowing that it was going to cost money, they committed themselves, and this is a readjustment to the budgets," Erasmus said.
Former students are also eligible for compensation under the court-approved agreement.
Similar gatherings will be held in British Columbia, Quebec, Alberta and Saskatchewan in the coming years.
The commission has also attended smaller hearings in communities across the country. It must produce a report by 2014.
Sinclair said he hopes more money can be found, adding that there is a lot at stake for former students as well as all Canadians.
"Anger has great resilience because it passes easily from generation to generation. They will never forget, and as a result, this relationship is going to continue in a damaged way," he said.
"We need to fix it when we can, and the time is now."