Truth commission chair supports Inuit sub-group

Disappointed there’s no Inuit commissioner, but not seeking a completely separate process, says ITK’s Simon


Disappointment over the lack of Inuit representation on the federal Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been eased by the new TRC chair’s verbal promise to ensure Inuit voices are properly heard through an Inuit sub-commission.

Commission chair Justice Murray Sinclair assured Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Mary Simon in a telephone conversation that he is open to ITK’s call for an Inuit sub-commission within the TRC’s overall structure.

The reality, Sinclair told Nunatsiaq News, is that we, the commissioners, can’t get to every community ourselves, and we can’t talk to everyone who has been in a residential school. There are far too many, and we don’t have enough time.

“Call it what you will,” he said, “we will need task forces or sub-commissions to go into many of those communities. And it makes a lot of sense that we appoint people who speak the language and have connections with the communities they will be visiting.”

At it’s annual general meeting in Nain, Nunatsiavut, in June, ITK passed a resolution urging the new commission to establish the Inuit sub-commission “to ensure that Inuit survivors of the residential schools experience are fully consulted as part of the truth-telling reconciliation process.”

“We don’t want a separate process,” Simon said in an interview. “This process is important. It was established by the government of Canada, it is long overdue, and it is tied to the apology.”

But Inuit residential school survivors “need a place where they can feel comfortable and secure enough to tell their stories in the language they want,” Simon said.

“We have to create that environment for them.”

She said ITK will work closely with the regional Inuit organizations to make sure “we do it in a way that people will be happy to tell their stories if they desire to do so.”

The federal government established the independent TRC a year ago to provide a forum where former students and others affected by the legacy of Indian Residential Schools can “share their individual experiences in a safe and culturally appropriate manner.”

With three commissioners and three distinct groupings of aboriginal peoples — First Nations, Métis and Inuit — common sense would suggest the TRC would have a representative from each of those groups.

It was not to be, however — neither in its first, aborted incarnation, which imploded when all three commissioners quit when they couldn’t get along, nor in this second version, announced last month.

The first chair, Justice Harry LaForme, resigned in October 2008, and the two remaining commissioners, Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Morley, followed suit in January.

That left the TRC spinning its wheels for a full year, until the new commissioners were announced last month.

The federal government appointed Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first Aboriginal judge as chair of the commission and Marie Wilson and Chief Wilton Littlechild as commissioners.

The starting date for the TRC’s mandate has been reset to this June, so the new commissioners will still have a full five years to complete their work.

Sinclair, a member of the Three Fires Society, and a Third Degree Member of the Midewiwin (Grand Medicine) Society of the Ojibway, also headed Manitoba’s major Aboriginal Justice Inquiry.

Littlechild from the Maskawacis Cree Territory in Alberta became Canada’s first Treaty First Nations person to earn a law degree — in 1976.

Wilson, although not herself Aboriginal, is a long-time northerner, and is married to Stephen Kakfwi, former president of the Dene nation, and former premier of the Northwest Territories.

Kakfwi is also a residential school survivor.

Some Inuit, including former Nunavut Commissioner Peter Irniq, have called on Inuit leaders to establish a completely separate commission along the lines of the Qikiqtani Truth Commission.

“We deserve to be heard,” Irniq wrote recently in Nunatsiaq News. “We cannot just take what is offered to us. Our residential school and life experiences are as unique as any other. The failure to appoint an Inuk commissioner to the federal truth and reconciliation commission is a national disgrace.”

“I know there is sadness, anxiety and mistrust out there about the residential schools, Sinclair said in the telephone interview, “so I’m not offended if there are people who don’t want to talk to us.

“I would ask people to have faith in us. Or if they cannot, I hope they will use whatever process they do believe in to tell their stories and find healing,” he said.

During its five-year mandate, the TRC will:
• host seven national gatherings across Canada to raise awareness of residential schools issues;
• establish a permanent national research centre;
• create a public historical record of policies and operations related to the schools, including what happened to the children who attended and what former employees say;
• support community events and commemorative initiatives to honour survivors; and
• produce a public report.

The three commissioners didn’t officially take office until July 1, although they have already had some preliminary conversations, Sinclair said.

“I hope we can sit down in mid July with staff, partners and representatives from the survivor groups to decide what we will do first and where we will do it.

“By fall I hope we will be out in the communities.”

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