Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 4, 2002
Residential schools revisited
Historical context can create understanding and clarity
By SR. MARIE ZAROWNY
Special to the WCR
Media coverage has begun to make well known the fact that the government of Canada and a number of Church organizations are facing thousands of claims for alleged abuses by former students of Indian residential schools.
Many Canadians may be wondering what is at issue between the government and the Church organizations. This article will offer some historical context.
The most important hurdle in the talks between government and Church leaders results from their different approaches to the problem.
While government has been primarily focused on addressing the burden of litigation, Church leaders proposed a vision which includes redress but also provides healing and reconciliation, and for assisting in restoring right relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.
On the litigation front, claims for alleged sexual and physical abuse have been brought against the government and Church organizations who administered the schools and who, though not at fault, may be required to pay compensation on the basis of a legal principle called vicarious liability.
These claims, often combined with claims for loss of language and culture, are not presently admissible in court nor are they accepted by either the federal government or Church organizations.
The range of this no-fault liability has been expanded by recent court decisions to cover many new situations and groups including non-profit organizations.
These developments, as well as efforts by government to off-load liability to Church organizations, has resulted in a financial crisis for the Church organizations involved and could mean that, in some cases, the government would pay all of the compensation for validated claims because a Church group has become insolvent.
It is important to understand that, regardless of the outcome of negotiations between Church organizations and the government, plaintiffs with validated claims are entitled to recover the amount of their claims.
In the litigation model, if a Church organization is unable to pay its fair share a plaintiff can recover from the government, which has the greater capacity to pay.
The litigation-driven approach puts government, Church organizations, and aboriginal claimants and communities in adversarial and defensive relationships and takes an immense financial toll. Church leaders have recognized that the costs of the litigation process compromise their ability to contribute community wellness.
Moreover, experience "on the ground" so far indicates that there are a number of claims that are false or exaggerated. Church organizations have proposed to the federal government ways of avoiding protracted delays for legitimate claimants.
The Voice of History
What does history say about Indian residential schools?
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said that "before aboriginal and non-aboriginal people can get on with the work of reconciliation a great cleansing of the wounds of the past must take place."
It is difficult to understand the impact of the schools apart from the "whole cloth" of aboriginal/non-aboriginal relations in Canada. However, some elements stand out in the historical record.
Scholars and the courts have noted, in the historical context, the predominance of government control in the Indian residential schools.
The government of Canada has responsibility for aboriginal people under section 91.24 of the Constitution Act, 1867, including the obligation to provide education.
In 1879, on the recommendation of the Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds, also known as the Davin Report, the decision was made to meet this obligation through a system of schools in which the residential schools had a central role.
The system was aimed at the assimilation of aboriginal people.
As part of their missionary ministry and concern for full human development, including health care and education, organizations associated with the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United or Methodist denominations had established some schools for the education and care of aboriginal children in the late 19th century before the adoption of this social policy by Canada. They then assisted the government in establishing others.
The government entered into agreements with individual Church organizations to administer the schools with public money.
Thousands of men and woman gave their lives in good faith and with the best of intentions, living in remote places under difficult circumstances as they worked for aboriginal people in the residential schools. Many provided exemplary education and care. Some learned the local languages and became an important part of the communities.
The institutional structure of Indian residential schools was a form chosen by the government and the Church organizations for what were thought at the time to be very good reasons, not the least of which was the remoteness of aboriginal communities. The schools offered opportunities to receive an education.
Many of the political and Church people who set up the schools had themselves attended boarding schools and valued those experiences. Many of today's aboriginal leaders were educated in residential schools.
Unfortunately, at that time there was no knowledge of the abusive potential of such schools, andwith the exception of a few prophetic voices, little knowledge and appreciation of the beauty and values of different religious beliefs.
In spite of the early chronic under-funding by government, the willing and devoted men and women working in the schools made them caring and nurturing environments where many aboriginal children could, often for the first time, feel safe and receive proper care.
To guard against inadequate supplies of food, the students helped to preserve fruits and vegetables for coming winters. Where there was insufficient clothing, the students learned to help make their own. When it was the only source of entertainment, the students sang, danced and played games to brighten their days at school.
Not only were children taken in who did not qualify for attendance according to government's rules, orphans, homeless children and children at parents' requests were taken in, and the costs of their care and education were absorbed by the Church organization.
The men and women, lay and religious, working in the schools often did so with inadequate if any compensation and had to make do when school supplies were not available. They performed their duties in remote and isolated areas on schedules and under conditions that would be unthinkable today.
Through the 1950s and 1960s the government achieved almost unrestrained control of the residential school system, increased their funding and finally terminated its administrative arrangement with the churches in 1969.
Policy was misguided
The federal government has recognized that the assimilative policy behind residential schools was misguided. Church leaders have acknowledged that their efforts failed, in many cases, to bring about the desired results. Over the past 10 years many Church organizations and government have apologized for some aspects of their involvement in the schools.
What remains is a legacy that cannot be separated from other assimilative processes that have contributed to the marginalization of aboriginal peoples in Canada.
While the key issue now is what should government and Church organizations do about the thousands of outstanding claims of abuse, history compels us to also ask hard public policy questions: When a social policy endorsed by successive generations of Canadian electors and their government fails, how should the legacy be addressed and who should pay?
What aspects of the current condition of a people can legitimately be considered the result of a faulty social policy? In the next article, I will explore how Church organizations involved in the schools have tried to answer this question in their proposal to the federal government.
(Sr. Marie Zarowny, a Sister of St. Ann, is chair of Catholic Organizations' Task Group on Indian Residential Schools.)