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Politics At reconciliation commission, key positions remain unfilled

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation commission has yet to fill most of its key management positions and won't be fully staffed until spring, prompting fears that the most horrific stories of Canada's early Indian residential school period will never be told.

It will be four years this spring since the commission was approved in 2006 as part of a multibillion-dollar out-of-court settlement between Ottawa, churches and former students of Indian residential schools.

But most of the senior management jobs - including the director of research - remain unfilled.

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Conflicts among the original three commissioners put the project a year behind schedule. Three new commissioners were appointed in June, but the organization is running into major headaches trying to set up two offices from scratch and comply with the public service's cumbersome hiring rules.

The commission's new headquarters in Winnipeg is a large open work space with few staff. Walls and offices have yet to be set up. Most of the jobs are open because rules require a period of recruitment and time for hiring decisions to be contested.

All the while, the clock is ticking. The commission has only five years to gather testimony and compile the official history of Canada's residential schools period. It is promising to hold its first national public event this spring in Winnipeg.

Mike Cachagee, the head of the National Residential Schools Survivors Society, said the slow pace means some of the testimony will be lost.

"The older ones were the ones who went through the worst schools, and they're all dying. So who's going to hear their stories while we fight over the colour of the walls and the colour of carpets?" he asked. "It's disgusting. Absolutely disgusting."

While the three new commissioners are currently travelling the country hearing from former students, these are informal and not part of the commission's official work.

Tom McMahon, the commission's executive director in charge of day-to-day operations, was hired in October.

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In an interview, he expressed his frustration that the settlement agreement called for the commission to follow federal hiring rules, which he said were not designed for staffing a major commission that must start fast and end within five years.

"We won't have our senior management team in place until, you know, February or March, 2010," he said in a candid assessment of the commission's state. "We won't have offices that actually have walls in them, or that accommodate sufficient number of employees in Winnipeg in the head office until March, 2010. We won't have received any of the records that the [government and churches]are required to give to us until at least March, 2010. We won't have had any of the community events called for in our mandate until at least March, 2010. Everything before March, 2010, is administrative startup."

Mr. McMahon said the commission's five-year mandate should not start until April, 2010, which would allow it to run into 2015. However, an Indian Affairs spokesman said the five years began when the new commissioners were appointed in June.

The new commissioners made one recent decision that is raising eyebrows. The word "commission" has been dropped from their website and e-mail addresses, which now read "Truth and Reconciliation Canada." Mr. McMahon said this was done so that the web address could be shortened to trc.ca and work in both official languages. But Mr. Cachagee said the change makes the commission sound like any other federal department - such as Health Canada or Transport Canada - and gives the impression that it will not be an independent judge of the Canadian government's historic actions.

Ted Yeomans, a spokesman for Indian Affairs minister Chuck Strahl, said the government had nothing to do with the name change.

"In our opinion, changing the name won't affect the very important work done by the TRC," he said. "Since July, the TRC has done a lot of important work and is operational."

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