WINNIPEG — The Manitoba judge named Wednesday to head the commission charged with shedding light on Canada's former Indian residential schools says the panel will reach out to survivors in a way that will make them feel comfortable telling their stories.
"I'd like to get out into the communities and sit down with the people in their environment to listen to them without unnecessarily being dominated by lawyers," Justice Murray Sinclair said in an interview. "I think people need an opportunity to be able to speak in a frank and informal way."
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl confirmed Wednesday that Sinclair, a Court of Queen's Bench judge, would take over as chairman of a revamped Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) one year into its original five-year mandate. Also appointed to the three-person panel were educator and journalist Marie Wilson and Wilton (Willie) Littlechild, Assembly of First Nations vice-chief for Alberta.
The commission was in its first months of operation last October when it was thrown into chaos. Justice Harry LaForme of Ontario's appeal court suddenly quit as its head, accusing his two co-commissioners of undermining his authority. They, too, later resigned.
In an interview late Wednesday, Sinclair said the commission's task was daunting.
"It's a scary project because there's so much work to do. There are so many survivors out there who have so many things that they need to share," he said.
Sinclair, raised on the St. Peter's reserve, was the first aboriginal judge to be appointed in Manitoba. He also co-chaired the landmark aboriginal justice inquiry in 1988-1991.
He said it's unclear whether the commission will need to seek an extension of its mandate beyond June 1, 2013, adding that some work has been done by the TRC's staff during the past year.
But it may be hard for the commission to hold seven national gatherings by June 1, 2010 as originally planned, he said. "We may have to re-examine the timeline given the fact that none of those events have occurred yet."
The commission's task is to "document the past, determine the truth and put together a reconciliation plan," Sinclair said.
Indian residential schools date back to the 1870s. There were more than 130 across the country, with the last one closing in 1996.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families and placed in the schools. The policy behind the government- funded, church-run schools was to "kill the Indian in the child."
-- With a file from The Canadian Press