Canada seeks global forum on truth commissions

Representatives of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission went to the United Nations on Tuesday, calling for the international community to work together on dealing with the legacy of aboriginal abuse around the world.
Murray Sinclair, second from left, participates in a healing ceremony in Gatineau, Que., in 2009. Sinclair is asking the United Nation to consider sponsoring an international forum on truth commissions and assessing their effect on indigenous peoples. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

Representatives of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission went to the United Nations on Tuesday, calling for the international community to work together on dealing with the legacy of aboriginal abuse around the world.

Justice Murray Sinclair of Manitoba, the lead commissioner, said they asked the permanent forum on indigenous issues at the United Nation to consider sponsoring an international forum on truth commissions and assessing their effect on indigenous peoples.

"We think that there is a question about the role that truth commissions can have on addressing indigenous issues around the world," Sinclair said in New York.

Canada's commission was set up to probe the physical and sexual abuse aboriginal children faced at residential schools across Canada in the past. However, about 50 other countries also have similar truth and reconciliation commissions to deal with the legacy of abuse at their own boarding schools.

Canada under fire

The appeal for the permanent forum came as Canada came under scrutiny at the UN this week for not  having signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The document recognizes the rights of indigenous people to their own culture, institutions and spiritual traditions.

    The government is apparently concerned that the document could be used to bolster the position of aboriginal people in Canada in land claims disputes.

Australia and New Zealand, which had initially rejected the declaration, have since endorsed the document. The United States has said it is studying the document, leaving Canada as the possible sole holdout.

But the federal government did indicate in the speech from the throne that it would look to endorse the document, although it has not yet indicated a timeframe in which it would do so.

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 schools were government-funded and meant to prevent parents from being involved in the "intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of aboriginal children," according to the commission.

Many former students have alleged being physically and even sexually abused when they were students at the schools, most of which were operated by churches.

Complaints delay work: Sinclair

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission consists of Sinclair and fellow members Marie Wilson of the Northwest Territories and Wilton Littlechild of Alberta.

They were appointed by federal Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl in 2009, after the commission's original members resigned over internal disagreements.

In his remarks to the UN, Sinclair took aim at the Canadian government's system to compensate former residential school students, saying it's an unfair system for many.

In fact, Sinclair said people's frustrations with applying for compensation are hampering the commission's efforts to collect personal accounts of residential school experiences.

"All they want to talk about is how frustrated they are at getting their money. And so they spend the first hour or two — or sometimes longer — of their time with us, talking about how frustrating that experience is," he said.

"It's delaying our work, it's causing problems for our work, and we brought that to the attention of the authorities and we said, 'We really think that you should fix this so it helps us to do our work better.'"

Many not compensated

Sinclair said about 25,000 former students in Canada have either not received any compensation, or they were paid for some of the years they had spent in residential schools.

Sinclair said compensation applicants should not be required to prove that they had gone to residential schools, which is the case under the current compensation system.

"My view is, and I say this even as a judge, that I think that the onus should be on INAC [Indian and Northern Affairs Canada] to prove they didn't go," he said.

"If somebody is prepared to sign an affidavit saying, 'I went to these schools at this point in time,' and swear under oath that that's where they went to school, then I think the onus should be on the government to disprove that claim."

Furthermore, Sinclair said the government is missing about 20 per cent of records from residential schools.