LaForme Resigns from Canada’s Truth and Justice Commission

October 21, 2008 · Print This Article · Email This Post

Justice Harry LaForme, of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation, Resigns as Head of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission in CanadaJustice Harry S. LaForme of the Ontario Court of Appeal, a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation in southern Ontario, resigned yesterday as head of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) over an internal power struggle. LaForme’s resignation comes less than six months after he was appointed as commission chair in late April 2008.

In 2006, the Canadian government settled a $1.9 billion class action lawsuit brought by former residential school students who suffered a loss of cultural identity and language, as well as emotional, physical and sexual abuse while enrolled in the Canadian residential school system for Indians. The TRC is part of the lawsuit settlement, which is the largest settlement in Canadian history. From the late 1800s until 1996, an estimated 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children attended 130 state-funded and church-run residential schools throughout Canada, with about 86,000 former pupils still living. The commission’s purpose is to study the decades-long Canadian government policy of “aggressive assimilation” which required First Nation students to attend the schools, and to document the experiences of survivors. The residential schools are widely considered to be the most racist and harmful act in Canadian history.

Chuck Strahl, Indian Affairs Minister of CanadaIn a letter to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, LaForme said the commission “will fail” in its present form, and characterized the commission as being “on the verge of paralysis” because its commissioners — attorney Jane Brewin Morley and native health expert Claudette Dumont-Smith — don’t accept his authority or share his vision. According to the CBC, the commissioners wanted to focus “primarily on uncovering and documenting truth,” while LaForme also wanted to emphasize “reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.” In his letter, LaForme also described “an incurable problem”: the two commissioners wanted decision-making by majority rule, even though they were appointed in an advisory capacity.

Strahl spokesman Ted Yeomans, in an email to The Canadian Press, wrote: “As this is a court-ordered settlement agreement, this resignation will need to be reviewed by the courts, and we await their direction on moving forward.” LaForme was unavailable for comment.

Mikmaq World View, Acrylic on Canvas Painting by Teresa Marshall of the Millbrook First Nation, Nova ScotiaWhen he was appointed to the TRC, LaForme hoped that the nationwide forum would help Canada come to grips with its past and move forward. He credited survivors for inspiring creation of the first truth and reconciliation commission in the developed world. He commented: “I pay homage to the former students and all the survivors of the residential school system. Your pain, your courage, your perseverance and your profound commitment to truth made this Commission a reality. . .The spirits of the 150,000 Aboriginal, Métis and Inuit children who attended residential schools will be ever present. . .Through their experiences truth will be made known, healing will begin and sincere reconciliation made possible.

“Because of this history, tremendous harm has been done to relationships within and between individuals, families, communities, peoples, Churches and Government. . .All of us Aboriginal people in some way have been impacted by the Indian Residential School tragedy. I thought hard before accepting this position. . .Fundamentally this Commission is about our children, our Canada and the type of world we want for our children; I looked at my seven-year-old son; there was only one right decision. So here I am; I am an Aboriginal/Anishinabe man.

Chief Phil Fontaine, Assembly of First Nations“I bring with me aboriginal beliefs and the principles of restorative justice. . .the Commission is to take a holistic (or all inclusive) view that is ‘forward looking in terms of rebuilding and renewing Aboriginal relationships and the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians’. . .This Commission will look to the past to learn for the sake of the present and with great hope for the future. The Commission is about the recognition, restoration and preservation of human dignity and respect for lost ancestors, for present day survivors, and for future generations and this will resonate through and benefit all aspects of Canadian society, its multiple cultures and its multiple legal and political structures. . .I believe that if the Commission does its work reliably, being faithful to its objectives, we will better know ourselves as peoples and will come out of the Indian Residential School experience enhanced and stronger.”

Aboriginal leaders were dismayed by LaForme’s resignation, fearing that it might derail the TRC’s work. Phil Fontaine, head of the Assembly of First Nations, said: “We’re disappointed that Justice LaForme resigned. 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.”

Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation LogoLaForme has been practicing law since 1979. After briefly practicing corporate commercial law, he began his own practice specializing in aboriginal law. LaForme was appointed Commissioner of the Indian Commission of Ontario in 1989, and became Chair of the Royal Commission on aboriginal land claims in 1991. With his November 2004 appointment, LaForme became the first aboriginal in Canadian history to sit on any appellate court.


Read about Nora Bernard, the First Nation activist who brought the class action lawsuit against the Canadian government which successfully sought compensation for native students who lost their culture and language while enrolled in the Canadian residential school system.

Photo credit: Chris Wattie /Reuters

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