12/13/2011 07:03 EST | Updated 02/12/2012 05:12 EST

Justice Murray Sinclair, Truth Commissioner, Blasts Attawapiskat-Ottawa Feud


VICTORIA - The chairman of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission for victims of residential schools has harsh words for aboriginal leaders and the federal government about the housing crisis on northern Ontario aboriginal reserves.

Justice Murray Sinclair said Tuesday that while Ottawa's silence on the squalid living conditions of the people in Attawapiskat is unacceptable, threats of civil disobedience coming from the James Bay area aboriginal leaders aren't helping bridge the divide that exists in aboriginal relations in Canada.

He said he is especially concerned about civil disobedience comments coming from the Cree leaders, saying they perpetuate among young people a disrespectful relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals.

"That's not going to establish a constructive relationship or maintain a constructive relationship," said Sinclair, in Victoria to announce a series of truth and reconciliation hearings on Vancouver Island in the New Year.

"I'm concerned that if we keep up this tone of conversation into the future that we're going to escalate as we go forward," he said.

"I'm very concerned that we need to establish a proper foundation for our leadership to talk to each other in a respectful way, so that our children will talk to each other in a respectful way and that everybody will grow up as Canadians believing in this country."

Theresa Spence, chief of Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario, has been harshly critical of Ottawa's decision to impose a third-party manager to control the Cree band's finances.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has openly questioned whether money has been mismanaged, saying Ottawa has spent $90 million on the reserve over five years and has not seen satisfactory results.

As a result, there has been rumblings from the band about civil disobediance and Spence has said she will not co-operate with the overseer.

Sinclair said the commission, established in 2007 as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, is seeking to create a national memory of the 150-year residential school experience through the voice of people who attended the schools.

He said the report, which aims to renew the relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals in Canada, is due by 2014.

The federal government has set aside $60 million for the commission's work, which Sinclair said was not enough money to fully explore the mandate of the commission, which now is looking to find ways to continue to tell the story.

Sinclair said the commission wants to change Canada's perception of aboriginals among non-aboriginals and aboriginals.

"Aboriginal kids were taught that they were savages, that they were heathens, their cultures were irrelevant and that they had to assimilate," he said. "That very same message was being given to you and your parents and your grandparents in the public school system."

Up to 2,500 Vancouver Island aboriginals are expected to speak at the hearings set for Port Hardy, Campbell River, Port Alberni and Duncan in February and March.

Two days of hearings in April are scheduled for Victoria.

Sinclair said the commission is planning an aboriginal festival in Vancouver Sept. 18-21, where it will invite new Canadians — people who have immigrated to Canada — to introduce them to aboriginal traditions.

The first government-funded, church-run residential schools opened in the 1870s. The last one closed outside Regina in 1996.

The commission was created under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached between the federal government, aboriginal groups and former students.

Former students are also eligible for compensation under the court-approved agreement.

The commission, which consists of Sinclair and fellow panellists Marie Wilson and Wilton Littlechild, has held national events in Winnipeg, Inuvik, N.W.T., and Halifax since June 2010.