Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 5, 2000
The residential school crisis
Federal gov't must develop a better response
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
While driving last month from Calgary to Pincher Creek for a school celebration and speaking engagement, I received a call on my cell phone informing me that a native peaceful protest, accompanied by media presence, was going to take place outside the church "to put pressure on the bishop."
The protest didn't materialize but I already feel pressured, frustrated and rather powerless.
As a religious leader, I feel caught up in an historical, financial and social quagmire. A report from Ernst and Young has concluded that the Anglican Church of Canada will be bankrupt by next year unless the federal government agrees to save it from the spiralling costs of residential lawsuits.
Bishop Denis Croteau has predicted a similar fate for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.
Peter Lauwers, a member of the prestigious national law firm Miller Thomson, says native lawsuits pose an urgent public policy question, but Ottawa has ducked its accountability by allowing the nearby 10,000 claims to pile up in Canada's courts. This benefits no one, he says, except the government and groups of lawyers.
We are also facing a number of lawsuits in the Diocese of Calgary. Unfortunately, when the last residential lawsuit is settled, reconciliation will be no closer.
Reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations is of fundamental importance for all Canadians. Government policy through the 1800s assumed native people, as nations, would disappear. Through most of the 1900s, government policy either ignored aboriginal rights or actively sought to extinguish them. Assimilation became the goal and the residential schools one of the means. In 1857, An Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes was passed.
It is now clear, however, that all of these policies and assumptions were wrong.
Catholic missionaries generally believed that one could not bring the Christian Gospel to a people except in their mother tongue. Missionaries who learned native languages were among the compilers of 141 dictionaries in 27 different languages, and 74 grammars in native languages.
They also translated stories, legends, hymns, prayer books, catechisms and translations of biblical texts into native languages. Religion classes and liturgical celebrations were often places where native languages were used and practised.
Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge, with profound regret, those dimensions of Catholic mission history that were not only too closely identified with government policy but contributed to the suffering of so many.
Some children in residential schools suffered physical and sexual abuse. The schools also contributed to the diminishment of languages, cultures and communities. Even today, these factors contribute to continuing harm in aboriginal communities.
The precise degree of harm caused by residential schools is difficult to determine. The federal government also built day schools that attracted more First Nations children than did the residential schools.
Some historians point out that only a fifth to a third of aboriginal children attended residential schools but the loss of language and culture were much broader; indicating other factors at work, such as the Indian Act.
The federal Indian Act established a context of assimilation within which the schools played a significant role. Another enormous factor was the collapse of the traditional native economic activities, such as fur trading, brought on by European settlement. The pull of technologically advanced economic activity in mainstream Canada also played a part.
The disruption wrought by a combination of these factors was universal, with or without residential schools.
The federal government's exclusive authority over aboriginal peoples derives from The Constitution Act (1867), which gives the federal government the exclusive authority to pass laws relating to "Indians and lands reserved for Indians."
Historian John Milloy describes the relationship between the Church and government this way: "The school system was founded and operated, in fact, through a Church-state partnership, a partnership in which the government was the senior partner. It was the government who provided the core funding, set the standards of care, was to supervise the administration of the schools, and controlled the children who were 'wards of this department'. . . . .
"Essentially, the residential school system was a creature of the federal government even though the children in the schools were, in most cases, in the immediate care of the churches. Despite the government's authority, however, neither its 'right' to protect children nor its responsibility to them was faithfully executed."
Individuals who were sexually or physically abused in residential schools have the right to seek compensation for damages, in keeping with the practices of Canadian law. Both Church organizations and the government of Canada must pay compensation where liability is established.
From the earliest days of European settlement the dominant ideology was colonialism. Church people, while sharing this dominant ideology, have at the same time provided the strongest and most consistent voices championing rights for aboriginal persons.
During the past 30 years, since breaking with the government policy of assimilation, Church organizations have played a particularly strong role in advocating for aboriginal justice. At the same time, aboriginal persons have taken an increasingly prominent role in the leadership of many Church organizations.
Lawsuits against Church organizations have not changed this. The churches continue to promote healing and advocate for native rights, and are committed to assisting with reconciliation and healing.
However, it's incumbent upon the federal government to develop a better social policy response than its current ad hoc basis of responding, its aggressive pursuit of Church organizations - even when the plaintiff chooses not to do so - and its refusal to negotiate cultural or cross-generational claims.
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
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