Last Updated: Tuesday - 01/04/2011
November 19, 2001
Native school talks at impasse
Top Catholic negotiator exasperated with federal stance on residential schools suits
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
OTTAWA — The year-long talks between the federal government and the churches that ran Indian residential schools under contract to Ottawa have all but collapsed in the wake of the government's offer to pay 70 per cent of the cost of abuse claims reached out of court with former students.
"We're back to square one," said Sister Marie Zarowny, chair of the Catholic Organizations' Task Group on Indian Residential Schools (COTG).
"We're definitely further away than we were a year ago and I find it very exasperating," she said in a CCN interview Nov. 8.
The government's offer was made Oct. 29 following discussions on a cost-sharing arrangement between the churches and the government for paying validated claims of abuse by former students of the now-defunct schools.
It was a unilateral decision that caught the churches by surprise. Both parties had proposals on the table when the government suddenly said, "We don't like your proposal," said Zarowny.
"They said, 'We're going to go and offer 70 per cent to the plaintiffs that are near settlement - which is less than 1,000 of the 9,000 or so that we have - and you can decide whether you want to pay 30 per cent, or the plaintiffs can sue for the other 30 per cent if that's what they choose to do.'"
About 8,500 former students of the more than 100 schools have launched more than 4,500 lawsuits to date. The figure could go as high as 15,000 students in the next few years, based on an estimate of 15 per cent of surviving former students making claims of physical, sexual or cultural abuse.
Also involved in the talks with the government were the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches. The Anglican Diocese of Cariboo, in British Columbia, had earlier announced it will cease to operate at the end of the year and other Anglican dioceses could go bankrupt as a result of litigation costs.
"The prolonged negotiations with the government and the continuing cost of litigation are wearing down both our capacity and our resolve to respond to need," said the Anglican bishops. "We have to be relieved of this burden if we are to do our part."
The churches and Catholic organizations, under the name, The Ecumenical Group on Indian Residential Schools, said the government's offer to pay 70 per cent of settlements reached out of court with former students from the schools was a step in the right direction.
But they added that a more comprehensive solution for dealing with abuse claims is needed.
The ecumenical group's proposal calls for a significant cash compensation, the establishment of healing and reconciliation projects, a commitment to continued work in aboriginal communities and an "alternative redress model."
"It's about bringing justice to individuals harmed and healing to communities affected," said Anglican Archdeacon Jim Boyles, who chairs the Ecumenical Group.
Based on settlements and court decisions to date, total compensation from the abuse claims could total $1.4 billion.
"Thirty per cent is not acceptable to us because it goes far beyond the capability of the involved organizations to pay it," said Zarowny.
"There is no way that the 10 or so (Catholic) corporations that were involved in running the schools can pay the $240 million plus dollars that they anticipate would be required by the Catholic Church," she said. "They would either go bankrupt or enter into some kind of creditor protection program."
Since the government announced its offer, the churches and Ottawa have engaged in a war of words with the government denying that it asked the churches to put up their mortgages as security. The claim was made by Bud Smith, a former B.C. attorney-general and a member of the Anglican negotiating team.
Smith said, "If we agree to do that, the government could foreclose on our church buildings the way any commercial lender would. I wouldn't put them past that."
Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, the government's point man on the residential schools issue, however, told CCN Nov. 2 that, "The claim is not accurate. Churches were not asked to provide mortgages on their property and that's the fact of the matter."
But Zarowny said the government specifically asked for commercial security from the churches during negotiations in August. And when Smith asked Jack Stagg, the chief federal negotiator, "You mean mortgaging our churches?" Stagg replied, "If that's what it takes."
Adding to the problem is Ottawa's view that the Catholic Church in Canada as a whole should be held responsible for residential school abuses committed by Catholic organizations.
The government "consistently is blurring - pretending that the corporate distinctions do not exist" and saying the Catholic Church must pay, said Zarowny.
The Church has argued successfully in court that it is not a single legal entity but rather an organization made up of several individual corporations including religious orders.
"These are legal entities, they're corporate identities. Those that are legally responsible should pay and they will pay up to their capacity to pay," Zarowny said.
A poll released Sept.8 showed that most Canadians believe both the federal government and the churches are legally and morally responsible for abuses in the schools and should share the cost of compensation equally.
There could be "significant opposition, even anger, if churches evade their share of responsibility and, as a result, taxpayers pick up the shortfall," it suggested.
Gray said the 70 per cent offer was made to help bring an end to the number of cases that are moving slowly through the legal system and that could take 20 years to resolve.
"I felt something had to be done to get back to the priority of dealing with the valid claims of former Indian residential school victims for sexual and physical abuse," he said on a CBC radio interview.
If the churches want to save money in litigation costs, he said, "they will seriously consider joining in with our settlement approach."
The deputy prime minister also claimed that depending on the denomination involved, payments from the churches could be as low as between one and four per cent each year of the total Church revenues.
"I'm just astonished by this," said Zarowny. "I have in my hand a letter received today from Mr. Stagg saying that 'Any information provided regarding the finances of Catholic corporations will remain confidential to these negotiations and will not be used in Indian residential school litigation,'" she said.
"Now for them to be saying that the amount will represent one to four per cent of the revenue doesn't sound confidential to me."
She also said the churches would jump at the chance to pay four per cent or lower of their revenues if that's all that was required.
Zarowny called on Catholics to write their members of Parliament asking that negotiations to settle the issue resume. "Even though they say they haven't walked away from the negotiations they're not negotiating with us," she said.
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