Members and friends of Suffolk Law School’s new Indian Law and Indigenous Peoples Clinic were moved to tears and a standing ovation Jan. 19 during a speech on the dark history of Canada’s forced Indian schooling policies by the Hon. Frank Iacobucci, retired justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.
“These schools were set up literally to ‘beat the Indian out of the child,’ ” Justice Iacobucci, 74, told about 60 people gathered in the University’s function room. “I can never forget the lack of smiles I witnessed myself on many of these children’s faces.”
Justice Iacobucci was tasked in 2008 to represent the Canadian government in negotiating a vast and complex $5 billion compensation deal in what is known as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
From 1870 until the last school was closed in 1996, more than 150,000 Indian and Inuit children, many as young as five, were torn from their families and forced into what Justice Iacobucci called a “Dickensian system” of canings, humiliation and sexual abuse.
Canada acknowledged its deep shame for the system in 2008 and announced a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. About 80,000 people are eligible for compensation, and the soft-spoken and modest justice has been lauded as instrumental in bringing parties together
Among the claims, he said, are 15,000 involving “novel torts” such as “deprivation of parenting and ancestry.” Those presented unique challenges for the legal system, he said, adding that “when you are remaking the law of the land, there is nothing like that pressure to leave you feeling uneasy about getting the decisions right.”
Justice Iacobucci said his key role was to “come to fair an honorable agreements” during “tense, emotional and sometimes unwieldy sessions with 65 lawyers in a room at once.” He was lauded after his speech as a man of empathy and fairness.
“Like Canada, the United States had a system of Indian boarding schools, which a 1969 federal report called ‘a national tragedy,’ ” said Law School Dean Camille Nelson. “Justice Iacobucci has taught us about the importance of accepting responsibility and seeking reconciliation.”