Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 15, 2000
The residential schools legacy
Currently, there are about 7,000 lawsuits against Canadian churches and the federal government stemming from the Indian residential schools that operated during the 19th and 20th centuries. These lawsuits all allege abuse of some sort, ranging from cultural to sexual abuse. The lawsuits have the potential to wreak enormous financial havoc on Catholic and mainline Protestant churches. How this situation plays out will be one of the most important developments for the churches in the early 21st century.
But more important than the financial implications - and those surely are important - is the fact that this situation is a test of faith. Will we as churches heed Christ's admonition "Do not be afraid"? Will we put our faith in lawyers and miss a crucial opportunity for healing the fractured relationships with aboriginal peoples?
It is easy to be cynical about the way in which native people were recruited to launch these lawsuits. To be sure, the launching of any particular suit should not lead to snap judgments about the truth of the allegations it contains. But long before lawsuits were considered there was abundant testimony of cultural and physical abuse in the residential schools.
To their credit, the churches, led by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, have apologized unreservedly for their treatment of native people. Saying "sorry," however, does not end the healing process. It only sets it in motion.
This will be a difficult knot to unravel. The residential schools were part of a wider government policy of assimilation. Not only did that policy not work, it was fundamentally violent. It took young children from their homes, barred them from speaking their native tongues and placed them in an environment of loneliness, excessive work and inhuman punishment. The motivations and actions of those who ran the residential school were often noble and their work often bore good fruit. But the system itself was inhuman.
This system was created by the federal government as an instrument of its social policy. The churches which ran the schools often worked hard to make the system shine with the light of Christ and to convince the government to provide more resources. Yet there remain incidents that did not reflect government policy, such as students being forced to eat their own vomit and being "punished" with cigarette lighters.
If healing is to come, it will not be through litigation. The lawsuits may provide the impetus for the action that leads to healing. But healing is unlikely to be found in the courtroom.
Last month, the churches and religious orders issued a working paper saying that since a faulty social policy of assimilation created the problem, a new social policy based on restorative justice is now needed.
Even more than this, however, is the need for a new relationship between aboriginal peoples and white Canadians. In his history of residential schools, historian J.R. Miller says "In a fundamental sense the party that bears most responsibility for the residential school story is the people of Canada. . . .The mass of the population was indifferent or hostile to the interests of native people."
Bringing about a change of heart leading to a positive relationship between white and native people will not be an easy task. The mistrust between the races is considerable. But widespread attitudinal changes can happen.
What is apparent with the residential schools issue is the desire of the churches to be part of the healing and reconciliation. The churches are not passing the buck on this issue. But they would also like the federal government to own its share of the responsibility. The danger is that if litigation is allowed to take precedence over healing, everyone may be stuck in never-ending court battles when lawyers are the only real winners and true healing remains a rare thing.
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