The story of the Indian Residential Schools is among the most unpleasant episodes in Canadian history. But its legacy represents an issue of enormous social importance. The way we treat residential school survivors today will have a significant impact on the course of our nation, and the way our descendents judge us, another 30 or 50 years hence.
The Anglican Church formally acknowledged and accepted its responsibility for its participation in the Indian Residential Schools in 1993 (and on many occasions since) when Archbishop Michael Peers, speaking to a gathering of Aboriginal Anglicans, said, in part:
I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God.I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.
I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.
On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I present our apology….
Even earlier, in 1991, the church had established a fund to support reconciliation and healing in Indigenous communities. Since then the fund, administered by the church’s Council of Indigenous Peoples, has made grants to assist more than 60 community-based programs.
All of this took place long before there was any significant activity in lawsuits.
Late in 1998, after the federal government issued its apology for Canada’s treatment of native peoples in residential schools, a number of residential school survivors began filing lawsuits against the government of Canada and, often, against one of the four churches which had operated the schools under contract to the government.
These lawsuits quickly became a flood. Although only the government has the total figures, it has been widely estimated that more than 10,000 individuals are suing Canada. The potential liability is estimated to be in excess of $1 billion. To date, few cases have been settled, and the number of new cases continues to grow at a rate of about 20 a week, according to a government official. Because the lawsuits are based on things that happened 30 years ago (and often as many as 50 or 60 years ago), many of the plaintiffs are quite elderly. The need for a just settlement of these suits is one of the most urgent priorities facing Canada today.
So far, we are failing. Both the church organizations that were involved in the schools and indeed the federal government itself are still coming to terms with the enormous scope and complexity of the issues arising from these multiple suits. Government practice has been to quietly settle those suits in which the government alone is liable, and aggressively pursue church organizations wherever they feel there is a hope of establishing joint liability.
Much has been made of the Anglican Church’s observation that its national General Synod, and some dioceses, may be headed for bankruptcy. From a public policy point of view, this is mostly beside the point. Our complaint is not about bankruptcy. It is about the litigation-based response which, in our view, will guarantee that many plaintiffs die before their suits are settled, that the compensation they ultimately receive will be dwarfed by the costs of litigation, and that the adversarial and exacting nature of the legal system — which provides compensation for some actions, but denies it for other, equally harmful actions — make it impossible to redress the wrongs of residential schools through litigation.
We are not alone in this view. The Law Commission of Canada recently completed a comprehensive review of “processes for redressing the harm of physical and sexual abuse inflicted on children who lived in institutions that were run or funded by government,” including residential schools.
The Commission did not feel any single approach should be adopted exclusively, but it did conclude “that redress programs [as distinct from litigation-based responses] are the official response that can be most effectively designed to meet the complete range of goals that have been identified….
“What are the needs of survivors? They are as diverse and unique as survivors themselves. Nevertheless, the Commission was able to identify certain recurring themes in the manner these needs were expressed. Survivors seek: an acknowledgement of the harm done and accountability for that harm; an apology; access to therapy and to education; financial compensation; some means of memorialising the experiences of children in institutions; and a commitment to raising public awareness of institutional child abuse and preventing its recurrence.”[The Law Commission report, Restoring Dignity: Responding to Abuse in Canadian Institutions, is available online]
In 1969, after a searching examination of its relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this country, the Anglican Church of Canada committed itself to seeking a new relationship based on justice and partnership. In the face of massive litigation, we are more than ever convinced that seeking healing and reconciliation must be our primary goal. We have significant contributions to make to the needs identified by the Law Commission:
- we have acknowledged harm and offered apology, and we can continue to be present in forums where acknowledgement is made and apology offered. We bring to this task a long-term commitment, engagement and expertise in working at healing and reconciliation.
- we can participate in financial compensation to the extent of our capacity. This includes limited current assets, and the potential to raise funds for healing and reconciliation into the future
- we can help to memorialise the experiences of residential school survivors, in ways they consider meaningful and appropriate
- we have assisted in raising awareness of abuse and taken steps to prevent its recurrence, and we can continue to do so.
Additionally we can contribute to healing from our experiences of:
- long-standing partnership with Aboriginal peoples and supportive engagement with issues of Aboriginal justice;
- continuing ministry in 225 native communities, including the ministry of four Aboriginal bishops and more than 130 Aboriginal priests and deacons;
- extensive involvement with Northern communities, including direct contributions of $2.8 million annually (about a quarter of our national budget)
Let me be very clear about the role of a possible bankruptcy in our future. Some have urged us to embrace bankruptcy as a means of escaping our liability and making a fresh start. That is not our wish. Our goal is to avoid bankruptcy, precisely so that we can remain at the table with residential school survivors and contribute both to settlements and to healing in the years ahead. Our concern is that the pace of litigation will force us to bankruptcy before we have an opportunity to make these contributions.
However, we have had some indication recently that government leaders are prepared to consider a more productive approach to the residential school claims. We hope it will be possible for us to continue our involvement in the healing process. Above all, with or without our involvement, we urge Canadians to support initiatives that will provide fair compensation to victims.
We encourage all Canadians to learn more about the legacy of the schools and the hope for healing. A variety of information and resources is available on our web site.
Archdeacon Jim Boyles
Anglican Church of Canada
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