After only six months as the chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Justice Harry LaForme has cited "many hurdles and obstacles (that) could not and cannot be overcome" and resigned his position effective Oct. 20.
"I don't think anybody expected (his) resignation. Most people were expecting it would get sorted out that the commissioners would agree among themselves on a single vision and that they would move forward," said Peter Rehak, spokesperson for LaForme.
In a four-page letter sent to Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl, LaForme said the three-member commission was on the "verge of paralysis."
That paralysis, said commissioner Claudette Dumont-Smith, came in the interpretation of the commission's mandate, as well as the powers to be wielded by the chair and commissioners.
In his letter of resignation, LaForme said that while he put the priority on reconciliation, commissioners Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley put their emphasis on truth.
Dumont-Smith said LaForme's allegation took her by surprise.
"I never once expressed the fact that one would have more weight than the other. There was not in my mind one more important than the other. I never indicated a difference in opinion in that."
LaForme said that the "incurable problem" however lay in the structure of the commission, in which the "course and its objectives are to be shaped ultimately through the authority and leadership of its chair."
Not so, said Dumont-Smith, noting that the roles are not spelled out in the document creating the commission and LaForme's take that the commissioners would only offer advice and assistance was his interpretation of the mandate, and not shared by her or Morley.
Although LaForme's resignation may have come as a surprise, six weeks earlier a mediator met the chair and commissioners to "address issues around decision making," said Dumont-Smith, who would offer no more details, stating that the mediator's proceedings are privileged. The mediator had only one meeting with the three-member commission and that was an introductory meeting on Sept. 3, which also included legal counsel for LaForme. The mediator held a second meeting with Dumont-Smith and Morley at their request.
As Dumont-Smith was fielding questions in her Ontario office, Morley was attending an information session on truth and reconciliation in Prince George on Oct. 22 and 23.
"She hasn't commented on (LaForme's) resignation, but some concerns have been voiced at the (two-day) meeting," said Robert Joseph, chief of the Gwa-wa-enuk, of North Vancouver Island, one of 200 people in attendance.
Joseph, who turns 70 shortly, has served for decades as special advisor to a number of federal deputy ministers on the issue of residential schools and is also a member of the Indian Residential School Survivor Society.
Joseph called LaForme's resignation "regrettable." However, he added, determining why LaForme resigned is not as imperative as continuing the work of the commission.
"Time is of the essence, of course, because there are so many Elders who are dying each day and they want to be able to tell their truth and gain some peace even briefly in the latter stages of their lives."
Joseph would like to see LaForme replaced immediately.
But it might not be that easy, said Margot Geduld, spokesperson for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. The settlement agreement does not address replacement of a commission member.
"It may become necessary for Canada to seek advice from the courts before moving ahead. This work will be done expeditiously."
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created as a result of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement negotiated between legal counsel for former students, the churches, Government of Canada, the Assembly of First Nations and other Aboriginal organizations.
Dumont-Smith holds that any replacement for LaForme needs to be made through consultation with these same parties.
Dumont-Smith acknowledged she has heard comments that the entire commission should be replaced. She will be disappointed if this happens. She, Morely and LaForme were chosen from 300 applicants.
"The parties really fought for this in the courts. They are the ones who are the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Now, if they feel they want to go that route, I will respect that."
Joseph puts the problems facing the commission down to "a reflection of a process evolving." He notes, "It's the first time ever a western country has had a truth and reconciliation process. We're going to go through some growing pains. I think we tried to anticipate all of the things that might become problematic."
Ultimately, said Robert Joseph, it's about the survivors.
"I spent most of my life being angry about the whole notion of the residential school experience and how society treats us. I want to help others to find a gentler, kinder, softer way for our children to grow up."
While the government determines the next move, the commission will continue its work, said Dumont-Smith. The first national event is scheduled for Vancouver in January 2009 and smaller community events are expected to take place before the end of the year.