OTTAWA - An aboriginal judge who has talked openly of his own struggles with racism will lead a long-awaited commission to hear "horrendous" accounts of abuse in native residential schools.
Justice Harry LaForme of the Ontario Court of Appeal said Monday the five-year process starting June 1 is to reveal truth - not assign blame. But it's still unclear whether related testimony would be admissible in court, said Canada's first-ever aboriginal appellate judge.
Legal details are to be worked out before the $60-million independent commission hears from former students and surviving church staff who once ran the schools funded by Ottawa.
LaForme is a member of the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation near Brantford, Ont. He was taunted as a child growing up poor on the reserve and has spoken publicly of the anger that seethed in him for years.
Now 61, he sees the purpose of the cross-Canada truth hearings "not so we can punish, but so we can walk forward into the future." The gatherings are in part inspired by the South African model that helped heal the wounds of apartheid.
Several cases have already made their way through the courts, including the convictions of some high-profile church leaders. But the commission may well draw out stories that have never been shared with police.
LaForme says he's proud to be living in a country willing to examine what he calls a "horrendous" chapter of its history.
His friend Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, shocked many when he became one of the first public figures to speak about the sexual abuse he endured at the Fort Alexander School in Manitoba.
In 1990, Fontaine described the extent of the "embarrassment and shame" that haunted him decades later.
"In my Grade 3 class ... if there were 20 boys, every single one of them ... would have experienced what I experienced," he said at the time. "They've experienced some aspect of sexual abuse."
On Monday, Fontaine expressed sorrow for thousands of former students who died before the commission finally began to take shape. "Reconciliation and healing has always been our objective.
"There will be no more secrets."
Still missing, however, is an official apology from the federal government. Many among the roughly 90,000 surviving former students have stressed the importance of hearing the prime minister say he's sorry in Parliament.
Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl candidly acknowledged Monday that both the commission and apology have taken too long. Still, he said it's more important to get crucial details right than to get them done "in a hurry."
An apology is expected later this spring, he said.
Two more commissioners are still to be named to work with LaForme. All are government appointments picked from a short list crafted by an advisory committee of native, church and government advisers that vetted 300 applications. Salaries will be disclosed when the commissioners are all named.
The healing effort is part of a massive compensation package for cultural losses and widespread abuse and death in the now-defunct schools. Related payments and programs are ultimately expected to top $4 billion.
The commission is to have unfettered access to church and government documents that reach back to a time when native pupils were beaten for speaking their languages. Files dating back to the early 20th century include disturbing records that suggest thousands of pupils died of tuberculosis when sick children were not removed from crowded dormitories.
There are also widespread, but less substantiated, reports of unmarked graves and unreported deaths.
While many former students say they received the benefits of a good education, Ottawa conceded 10 years ago that abuse in the system was rampant.
The federal government has already paid $1.3 billion, in cheques averaging $28,000, to anyone who could prove they attended the once-mandatory schools meant to "Christianize" native people, starting with their children. Much higher amounts will be awarded for the worst sexual and physical abuse through continuing court cases and an alternative settlement process.
Robert Joseph was just six years old when he arrived at the St. Michael's school on Alert Bay in B.C. more than 60 years ago. During the next 11 years he suffered sexual, physical and spiritual abuse, he says.
"There were both male and female perpetrators of sexual abuse," he said of the Anglican-run institution.
Joseph declined to name names. He stressed that the healing process, for him and for many of the survivors he has worked with over the last decade, is more vital than seeing his tormentors pay a legal price.
He was for years "very angry and resentful, acting out in very addictive ways that were harmful to myself. My real interest is in being whole again, being free spiritually.
"Blame isn't important to me. It's done. ...Those people may not even be alive."
The commission is to compile what Ottawa says will be "a comprehensive historical record on the policies and operations of the schools." A public report with recommendations is to be released, and a research centre established along with a lasting tribute to former students.
Joseph said he hopes Canadians will learn to trace the sad roots of how aboriginal people came to be so "stereotyped: that we're lazy or losers or drunkards or whatever."
Those sweeping judgments "have resulted from a very destructive, oppressive colonization of aboriginal people. And I think if we learn that together, there's lots of room for creating understanding between all of us."