Church approach would save taxpayers money

Adapted from an article by Archdeacon Jim Boyles in the Globe and Mail, September 11, 2000.

A number of people are promoting the myth that churches are looking for a government ‘bail-out’ from the legacy of residential schools. This is absolutely false.

The fact is that churches bailed out the Government of Canada. Churches had no responsibility for providing education to native people: Canada did. It was obligated both by treaty and under the Indian Act.

Canada turned to churches for help, and church people responded. They wanted to help; they were willing to work with Aboriginal Canadians when many others were not, they were willing to live in locations few other non-Aboriginals would tolerate, and they were willing to work for wages far below their secular counterparts.

Did we enter this relationship willingly? Yes we did. We believed in the educational enterprise; we believed it would make a difference for the better in the lives of Canada’s Indigenous people.

Do we feel differently now? Not about the need for access to appropriate education (still Ottawa’s responsibility and still woefully deficient); not about the dedication and commitment of the vast majority of men and women of all denominations who served faithfully in the schools, on a task in which they believed passionately.

But we feel very differently about the assumptions and the methods of the old residential schools system. We explicitly rejected those assumptions in 1969 (although the federal government continued to operate many schools on its own well into the 80s). We have rejected the goal of assimilation. We have committed ourselves for more than 30 years to working at a new relationship with Indigenous Canadians based on respect and partnership. There is far to go, but the evidence of healing and spiritual vibrancy among, for example, last month’s “Sacred Circle,” a gathering of Indigenous Anglicans, is one sign of this renewed relationship.

Were there abuses in the schools? Yes there were, the views of some skeptics notwithstanding. We have cooperated fully with bringing guilty parties to justice; we have acknowledged our participation in the system that permitted those abuses, and we are continuing to make reparations.

What we are seeking in our dealings with the federal government is an appropriate acceptance of federal responsibility for federal policy and federal actions. This is fundamentally an issue of justice, not finance. But taxpayers have nothing to fear from our discussions with the federal government, because if we are successful it will save them a bundle!

This is because the Government of Canada is jointly liable in every case in which abuse is established. In many of these suits, the church is involved only because the Department of Justice has dragged it in through a “third-party” lawsuit. It is literally true that if the Anglican Church’s national organization goes bankrupt, it will be not primarily because of the people who suffered abuse and are seeking fair compensation, but because of legal actions launched by Canada’s Department of Justice, and because, so far, our government has chosen to respond to this national crisis only through the courts and similar legal processes.

And, if the Department of Justice succeeds in forcing us to bankruptcy, Canadian taxpayers will automatically assume all remaining liability. Lawyers in the justice department like to argue that they are protecting the interests of the taxpayer by suing the churches. The argument won’t stand up to scrutiny. It is likely, in fact, that Ottawa has already spent more on its army of lawyers than it can possibly hope to recover from a bankruptcy proceeding.

What should concern the taxpayers — including churchgoers, by the way — is that this mountain of spending on lawyers is accomplishing nothing towards settling the liabilities that all of us inevitably will still have to pay.

There is a better way.

The Law Commission of Canada has conducted a thorough review of abuse in federal institutions, including the residential schools, and provided a detailed set of recommendations about how to respond effectively.

The Commission did not feel any single approach should be adopted exclusively, but it did conclude

“that redress programs 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 Anglican Church of Canada supports this proposal.

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 justice, 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 are prepared to make that commitment, and we have told the government so.

We have taken some small steps to help “memorialise” the experiences, and we can do more.

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 Indigenous peoples and supportive engagement with issues of Indigenous justice; continuing ministry in 225 Indigenous communities, including the ministry of four Indigenous bishops and more than 100 Indigenous priests and deacons; and extensive involvement with Northern communities, including direct contributions of $2.7 million annually (about a quarter of our national budget)

Our vision, in all of this, is one of restored relationship, in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians enjoy together that abundant life this land has to offer. The help we need from the federal government is not a bail out. It is a commitment to working toward a future in which Canada?s relationship with Indigenous peoples is not dominated by confrontations and courtrooms.

Archdeacon Jim Boyles,
General Secretary

The Law Commission report, Restoring Dignity: Responding to Abuse in Canadian Institutions, available online.