Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of June 9, 2003
Residential schools revisited
By ARCHBISHOP PETER SUTTON
Special to the WCR
Keewatin-The Pas, Man.
Many people have questions when faced with reports in the media about the residential school issue. I encourage your consideration, study and discussion of this issue.
I also ask you to remember the service provided by many men and women of faith who dedicated their lives to the Church and to serving people of all races. They helped create the first hospitals and schools. Many were also involved in developing grammars and dictionaries to help maintain native languages.
From assimilation to self-determination
Since Confederation (1867), the federal government's responsibility for the education of aboriginal students (and its social policy) has been a feature of Canadian society. In 1911, the government established formal contracts with various Church organizations to operate industrial and residential schools, with an underlying objective of assimilation. To ensure this, the Indian Act mandated compulsory school attendance for aboriginal children between the ages of seven and 15 years.
The number of residential schools reached a peak in 1938. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the concept of segregated schools was replaced with one of integration into public day schools. This reorganization and the subsequent closing of residential schools took place over the next few decades.
In 1969, the government formally ended its partnership with the churches in aboriginal education and, in 1973, began to shift control to band councils or their designated education authorities.
While official federal government policy concerning the schools gradually evolved, there was an underlying objective of assimilation right up until the more recent move toward self-determination. Understanding these racial attitudes is important in understanding the residential school system's overall impact on the families, communities, and culture of aboriginal people of that time.
Thousands of lawsuits
Reports of individual cases of abuse began to surface in 1991. In 1996, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal People called for a resolution of grievances and a flood of litigation followed in 1998 when the Minister of Indian Affairs apologized for cases of physical and sexual abuse. The federal government and Church organizations were soon facing thousands of individual lawsuits.
Although very few of these claims have been tested, it appears that some of them use loose definitions of the word "abuse". In many cases they apply today's standards to yesterday's behaviour. An example of this is the use of the strap, which may be called abusive today, but was common practice in schools across the nation as little as 17 years ago.
The number of unsupported claims of abuse continues to grow. We are dismayed that the burden and shame of guilt is so unfairly scattered over many innocent men and women of faith who dutifully served their Church community and dedicated their lives to First Nation people.
Regrettably, we must also acknowledge that there may have been individuals in some residential schools who were physically or sexually abused. We believe that the legitimate victims in such cases require redress.
In 1998-99, representatives from Church organizations met with the federal government and aboriginal students and leaders to explore the possibility of an alternate dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism that would speed up the process, reduce costs and remove everyone from adversarial court proceedings. Following these discussions, the government suggested an arrangement that would see the Church organizations assume a staggering 50 per cent of costs.
In response, the ecumenical group put forward an alternate funding proposal. The government failed to respond and unilaterally announced a cost-sharing formula for compensation that would see the churches assume 30 per cent of all liabilities. A full three years later, after months of delay and costly legal wrangling, the government independently announced that a formal ADR process would be implemented.
In the meantime, the government has been trying to involve all the Church organizations in the lawsuits by naming them as third parties so that the costs of any resolution would be shared.
We are saddened that the focus of the government's efforts has not been to resolve these legitimate cases but instead to press Church organizations to make unrealistic financial commitments at the expense of ongoing Church ministry. As a result, progress towards fair settlement of legitimate claims has all but ground to a halt and the interests of each of you is threatened by the heavy financial burden that the government is looking to visit on Church organizations. We also deplore that the emphasis to date has been on financial compensation and not on healing and reconciliation.
Church organizations, band councils and other institutions understand that they participated in a misguided, historical federal government policy of assimilation that was expressed through the Indian Act. Where negligence in care occurred, those responsible should be held accountable, but otherwise it is the government's responsibility to bear the consequences and costs of its policy. It was the federal government that provided the core funding, set the standards of care, supervised the schools' administration, and controlled the children as wards of the government.
Adding to the problem
In order to better understand the residential schools issue, one must consider how the issue have been managed by the federal government and the impact their decisions has had on both First Nations people and the religious groups that operated the schools on the government's behalf.
Rather than moving quickly to bring redress to the residential schools issue, the federal government has created a bloated bureaucracy and attempted to draw Church organizations into lengthy and costly legal battles so they can offload a portion of their social and financial responsibilities.
When the government has been sued by former residential school students, it has added Church organizations in its lawsuits as defendants and "third parties," forcing them to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on legal fees, with none of it being used for healing, reconciliation or compensation to deserving former students.
Catholic organizations across the country began a process a number of years ago of co-operating with one another in order to work with the federal government and churches of other denominations to arrive at a sensible approach to resolving the thousands of claims. The organizations involved always made it clear each Catholic diocese and religious institute is a separate entity, legally and financially. The government continually refuses to acknowledge this reality, notwithstanding a number or court judgements confirming the point. This has made it impossible for Catholic organizations across the country to make any progress with the federal government toward a sensible solution.
Two realities cannot be ignored. First, each Catholic diocese and order is a separate entity, which has no legal or practical right to call upon any other Catholic organization to contribute money to meet its liabilities. Second, most of them do not have sufficient resources to defend, manage and settle all of the claims they face.
Catholic organizations have squarely put these realities to the federal government. The implication is that a comprehensive settlement agreement between the federal government and each independent organization is needed to facilitate an equitable contribution that can be fairly distributed among all legitimate claimants. The government has refused to recognize either reality and by doing so has made the problem worse instead of better.
Implications to Catholics
With a focus on compensation as opposed to healing and reconciliation, Catholics across this country are being asked to pay twice for the alleged abuses perpetrated on First Nation students who attended the federal government's residential schools - first, as taxpayers, and again as Catholics.
To date, over 12,000 claims of abuse of one kind or another at a residential school have been filed against the government. Approximately 75 per cent of these are related to events that are alleged to have occurred at a residential school operated by Catholic organizations. Many of these are cases in which the claimant has chosen to sue the government alone and the government has in turn made a third party claim, looking to transfer liability.
It is known that some abuse did occur. One of the important legal issues is whether and to what extent liability to compensate the victims of such abuse rests with the government or the Church organizations that operated the schools. The residential schools system was the creation of the government. Policies and regulations were set by the government. Funding was provided by the government. Mandatory attendance was legislated by the government.
The Church organizations were involved in the implementation of the government's policies through administration and teaching. In addition, they also augmented inadequate federal funding to the extent they could afford and provided pastoral support to the school communities. While the churches were ordered to implement the government's assimilationist policies, many resisted. In fact, Catholic missionaries were involved in the creation of dictionaries and grammars, which helped to preserve native language and culture.
That said, in the legal process there is always a risk that a court will find liability. In addition, the costs and delays of the justice system are quickly diminishing our already limited capacity to contribute to compensation, healing and reconciliation. From the point of view of legitimate victims, the consequence has been frustration and injustice.
Far from having unlimited financial resources, most Catholic organizations are incapable of contributing millions of dollars in compensation. Before a cent is paid in compensation, the cost of legal fees alone means we will soon have no choice but to curtail our pastoral activities as the current process drags out.
As members of the Catholic community, we want to help with healing and reconciliation. To blame all present woes on the past, however, will unfairly accuse and judge unjustly every teacher and generation of parents. We must speak truthfully, be involved in healing past hurts, and enter into a positive dialogue among all cultures.
How can you assist in resolving this issue? First, we ask for your prayers. Secondly, I invite your help in delivering these messages to the federal government and your Member of Parliament.