Aboriginal judge to probe residential schools abuse

TheStar.com – Ontario – Aboriginal judge to probe residential schools abuse
April 28, 2008. Sue Bailey, THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA–An aboriginal Ontario Court of Appeal judge will lead a long-awaited, truth-and-reconciliation commission to hear “horrendous” accounts of abuse in native residential schools.

Justice Harry LaForme said today the five-year process that begins June 1 is about revealing truth – not assigning blame – though it’s unclear whether testimony would be admissible in court.

Such legal details are still to be worked out before the independent commission hears from former students and surviving church staff who once ran the schools funded by Ottawa.

LaForme, 61, sees the purpose of the cross-Canada truth forums “not so we can punish, but so we can walk forward into the future.” The gatherings are in part inspired by the South African model that helped heal the wounds of apartheid.

LaForme says he’s proud to be living in a country willing to examine what he called a “horrendous” chapter of its history.

His friend Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, shocked many people when he became one of the first public figures to speak about the sexual abuse he endured at the Fort Alexander School in Manitoba.

In 1990, he described the extent of the “embarrassment and shame” that haunted him decades later.

“In my Grade 3 class . . . if there were 20 boys, every single one of them . . . would have experienced what I experienced,” he said at the time. “They’ve experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.”

Fontaine said today that the commission’s work is overdue but welcome, and he expressed sorrow for thousands of former students who died too soon to see it. “Reconciliation and healing has always been our objective.

“There will be no more secrets.”

Still missing, however, is an official apology from the federal government. Many of those who attended the schools have stressed the importance of hearing the prime minister say he’s sorry in Parliament.

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl candidly acknowledged today that both the commission and apology have taken too long. Still, he said it’s more important to get such crucial matters right than to get them done “in a hurry.”

An apology is expected later this spring, he said.

Two more commissioners are still to be named to work with LaForme. All are government appointments picked from a short list crafted by an advisory committee of native, church and government advisers that vetted 300 applications.

The healing effort is part of a massive compensation package for cultural losses and widespread abuse and death in the now-defunct schools. Related payments and programs are ultimately expected to top $4 billion.

The commission is expected to sift through documents that suggest thousands of pupils died of tuberculosis when sick children were not removed from crowded dormitories.

There are also widespread, but less substantiated, reports of unmarked graves and unreported deaths.

Ottawa has already paid out $1.3 billion in cheques averaging $28,000 to anyone who could prove they attended the once-mandatory schools meant to “Christianize” native people, starting with their children. Much higher amounts are expected to be paid for the worst sexual and physical abuse through ongoing court cases and an alternative settlement process.

Several claims have already made their way through the courts, including the convictions of some high-profile church leaders.

The $60-million commission is to have access to government and church files as it compiles what Ottawa says will be “a comprehensive historical record on the policies and operations of the schools.”

A public report with recommendations is to be released, and a research centre is to be established along with a lasting tribute to former students.

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