Credit where credit is due


When Phil Fontaine steps down some time next Wednesday as Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, he will leave a legacy for which many thousands of Canadian Inuit owe a debt of gratitude.

That legacy is the residential schools settlement agreement that the Assembly of First Nations worked out with Canada in May of 2005.

This agreement, partly the product of a personal quest that Fontaine began in 1990, led directly to a $2 billion out-of-court settlement worked out a year or so later with the help of Frank Iacobucci, a retired Supreme Court of Canada justice who led the negotiation process on behalf of the federal government.

If you were one of the many Inuit to receive a common experience payment over the past couple of years, that’s the deal that required the federal government to make out your cheque and send it to you.

To accomplish that, Phil Fontaine and the Assembly of First Nations did far more work on your behalf than any of the Inuit associations that claim speak on behalf of your interests.

The deal also provides for the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconcilation Commission. The commission’s job is to receive oral and written statements from residential school survivors, do research, create a permanent historical record, and submit a final report with recommendations.

It’s this three-member commission that has been the subject of an overblown controversy over whether it should contain a person of Inuit ethnicity.

This is an irrelevant question. The word “reconciliation” means reconcilation between Canada and all those aboriginal residential school survivors who live within Canada’s borders. Reconcilation means that after truth is told, wrongdoers express contrition and those who are wronged express forgiveness.

To that end, the purpose of the truth and reconcilation commission is not to have aboriginal people tell their stories to other aboriginal people. The purpose of the commission is to have aboriginal people tell their stories to all Canadians. If Inuit simply tell their stories only to other Inuit, reconciliation with Canada cannot be achieved.

So ethnicity is the least important criteria for service on the commission. The most important qualities that commisioners should display is knowledge of the law, an appreciation of history and a willingness to listen.

And with a budget of about $60 million over five years, it was obvious from the start that the residential school truth commission would have the means to hire Inuit workers to conduct hearings in the Arctic. There’s no evidence that it was ever their intention to do otherwise.

But if you take the position that the commission must include an Inuk member, it should come as no suprise that Inuit appeared to get short shrift.

Inuit associations, including ITK and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., ignored the issue for years when they did next to nothing to help Inuit beneficiaries win compensation for the abused they suffered in residential school.

When the issue was essentially resolved in 2005 and 2006, Canada’s Inuit associations were not at the table — because they chose not to be there. Three months later, they scrambled to make up for their prior negligence, firing off token lawsuits to give themselves a seat at the table.

And to cover their embarrassment, they also fired off a series of misleading statements and press release that misled and confused beneficiaries about the legal position of Inuit. For example, a press release issue Sept. 9, 2005 on ITK letterhead claimed that “hundreds of Inuit” were left out of the residential schools settlement process.

This statement, of course, was, and is, completely untrue. All Inuit residential school survivors became part of the process in 2003, when the Ontario Superior Court certified the massive Baxter case as a class action.

That lawsuit, backed by a national consortium of 21 law firms, was filed on behalf of all aboriginal persons, including Inuit, who attended a residential school anywhere in Canada between 1920 and 1996.

The Baxter suit sought $12 billion in compensation. It was this potential liability, and continuous lobbying by the Assembly of First Nations, that brought the federal government to the negotiating table in 2005.

Canada’s Inuit associations did little or nothing to ensure that Inuit were included in the Baxter case and did little or nothing to help Inuit residential school survivors seek compensation. The only exception is the Makivik Corp., which in the late 1990 helped pay for a couple of residential school lawsuits related to federal schools in northern Quebec.

But for thousands of Inuit in Nunavut, the real work was done by lawyers hired by individual Inuit who started acting on their own in the early 1990s.

Having said all that, Mary Simon, the president of ITK, deserves some credit for working last week to restore at least some of her organization’s lost credibility on residential school issues.

Unlike some of her predecessors and colleagues, she appears to genuinely appreciate the importance of the issue.

After meeting July 15 with members of the recently re-constituted truth and reconciliation commission, Simon emerged with an agreement-in-principle aimed at assuaging the insecurities of Inuit who aren’t happy that no Inuit sit on the three-member commission.

It’s a fair compromise. The truth commission will create an Inuit sub-group to whom Inuit residential school survivors throughout the Arctic will tell their stories, presumably at public hearings.

Now that this issue has been resolved, let the truth and reconciliation process go forward — on behalf of all Canadians.

And spare a thought for Phil Fontaine. His work on the residential school issue brought benefits to all aboriginal people, Inuit included. JB

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