Aboriginal leaders and fellow members of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission expressed shock last week at the sudden resignation of chairman and prominent Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Harry LaForme.
LaForme, a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation and the first aboriginal person named to a Canadian appellate court, cited “an incurable problem” within the commission in a resignation letter to Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl.
“The two commissioners are unprepared to accept that the structure of the commission requires that the TRC’s course is to be charted and its objectives are to be shaped ultimately through the authority and leadership of its chair,” wrote LaForme, who was appointed to the position in April.
The letter contained the only insight made public by LaForme on his decision, and his return to the Court of Appeal bench seems to handcuff him from speaking further. A spokesman for the judge tells Law Times that LaForme will not provide media interviews on the matter, as per court policy.
While it’s been suggested in news reports that LaForme attempted to rule the commission with an iron fist, one commissioner told Law Times that a story suggesting he demanded the commissioners call him “your honour” is false.
The TRC was created in June as part of the $1.9-billion, class-action settlement with survivors of residential schools, who endured physical and psychological abuse. Some 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit, and Métis children attended the schools.
LaForme told Strahl in his letter that, while he expected them to assist the chairman, the commissioners “have chosen to compete for control of the commission by insisting that it is to be run on the basis of simple majority rule.”
He suggested the commissioners had retained legal counsel to “formally demand that I change the structure of the commission by agreeing to their majority rule.”
The judge acknowledged that struggles often occur within organizations and can be overcome, but said a further complication arose.
“The reason is that they and their supporters see the TRC as primarily a truth commission,” wrote LaForme. “Unlike mine, theirs is a view that leaves much of the work of reconciliation for another day.”
LaForme said he was forced to step down because the dispute with the commissioners was about more than “a case of competing visions open to debate and beneficial resolution.”
He later wrote, “I cannot stay through a five-year term with a commission in which incurable structural defects are coupled with . . . conduct that can only ensure that my vision for the TRC’s mandate will be unrealizable. Such a commission is not one to which I can make a useful contribution.”
While it is being debated whether the chairman and two commissioners are to hold equal authority on the TRC, it’s also up to interpretation whether all three would have shouldered equal responsibility for its results.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said during an August speech at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Quebec City that it was up to LaForme as chairman of the commission “to ensure that people will actually come forward to participate in the truth and reconciliation commission.”
TRC commissioner Claudette Dumont-Smith, the former senior health advisor to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, says she was shocked to learn of LaForme’s resignation.
“I was sad too that he chose to resign, because he could have done the job and he had my
respect and he chose to resign and that really saddened me,” says Dumont-Smith, who is joined by British Columbia lawyer Jane Morley as a TRC commissioner.
“I find that it reflects on what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re a truth and reconciliation commission.”
Dumont-Smith says she was “flabbergasted” by LaForme’s comments regarding the commissioners’ view of his role.
“I think what he means, is that he was focusing on the decision making, and for me decision making, I’m aboriginal and I believe in consensus for decisions. And I think he had a different idea,” she says.
She says her view of how the commission is to be governed is that “the commission is
composed of three commissioners, and three commissioners make up the commission. There’s a chair and two commissioners.”
Dumont-Smith says she met LaForme six or seven times, and she thought “we were in sync.”
She says the judge left a meeting with the commissioners on Aug. 26, citing illness. He later went on a “medically supervised schedule,” says Dumont-Smith, adding the commissioners were then to contact LaForme via his legal counsel.
But she says that system of communication continued beyond LaForme’s period of medical supervision.
Dumont-Smith says she last saw LaForme at a Sept. 3 introductory mediation session that was set up with Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin LLP lawyer Will McDowell to bring the three parties together on their differences.
“We didn’t really go beyond that, which I think is unfortunate because I think if we would have all aired out issues that maybe were bothering one or the other, we would have come to a resolution,” she says.
Dumont-Smith denied suggestions from LaForme, made during a CBC Radio appearance before his resignation, of political interference in the commission’s work from the Assembly of First Nations. She said the AFN “is not to be viewed as an opponent” to the commission, and it had a hand in its creation.
Law Times’ request for an interview with Fontaine was declined.
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Chief Patrick Brazeau says a full airing of LaForme’s resignation must come out before the commission can get back to healing the wounds left by residential schools.
“In the final analysis, a lot of importance has to be given to exactly getting the facts before us so we can assess what went wrong, how we can deal with it in order to move forward,” says Brazeau.
“Those who are suggesting that we just have to name a replacement as quickly as possible without knowing the truth I think is the wrong way to go. I think it’s hypocritical, and I don’t think it’s very accountable.”
A spokesman for Strahl said the courts are reviewing the resignation, and the minister is awaiting a decision before moving forward with the commission.