OTTAWA – The former Supreme Court judge who helped craft a historic compensation deal for abuse in native residential schools will try to salvage the truth commission that was at its heart.
Frank Iacobucci, federal negotiator of the settlement package expected to top $4 billion, will act as facilitator when lawyers and representatives for all parties meet in Toronto on Friday to discuss next steps.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was thrown into chaos last month when Justice Harry LaForme suddenly quit as its head. He accused his two co-commissioners, Claudette Dumont-Smith and Jane Brewin Morley, of undermining his authority.
The two women have denied the charge and are determined to stay on in what many observers have said was supposed to be a consensual process.
Lawyer Pierre Baribeau, representing several Catholic entities that ran the now-closed federal schools, says Iacobucci's involvement is a hopeful sign. Baribeau is optimistic that all parties can agree under the former judge's guidance to select a new head commissioner – and soon.
"It's not that complicated, you know," he said in an interview. ``Mr. LaForme, rightly or wrongly, resigned. And he created a whole mess by his comments, which were very surprising to everyone.
"He has done whatever he thought was to be done. But now we have to move on."
Baribeau is hopeful that a replacement for LaForme can be named by the federal government by early December, perhaps in time to go ahead with the commission's first truth-telling forum slated for Vancouver in January.
Time is of the essence. Of about 80,000 surviving former students, many are sick or elderly. Any delay in their opportunity to share harrowing first-hand accounts of what happened to them as children could diminish the commission's key purpose: to create as detailed and complete a record as possible of what LaForme called a ``horrendous" chapter in Canada's history.
While many former students say they received an education and good care, thousands of others sued Ottawa for physical and sexual abuse. The government conceded in 1998 that abuse in the schools was rampant.
The deal that Iacobucci helped steer in 2006 offered blanket compensation to former students averaging $28,000. Payments will be much higher for the most serious cases of abuse to be dealt with in a separate out-of-court adjudication process.
Some students rejected the offer outright, opting to go through the courts.
Lawyers for the federal government and representatives from the Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches met behind closed doors last week in Toronto with members of the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit officials.
They agreed to a mix of the first selection process that narrowed 300 commission applicants down to a short list of 16, and a new process that has not been disclosed. Names circulating as a possible replacement for LaForme include Murray Sinclair of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench and Leonard Mandamin of the Federal Court.
It is widely expected that the federal government will appoint an aboriginal candidate as head commissioner.