Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2002
Residential school solutions
Church organizations offer resolutions to potentially catastrophic debt
By SR. MARIE ZAROWNY
Special to the WCR
An impasse exists between Church organizations and the federal government in our negotiations over liability for claims arising from Indian residential schools.
At a glance, the impasse looks as though it is just about money. The government says that it will pay 70-per-cent of a valid claim while the Church organizations say that's not enough.
The impasse is about money, but it is also about basic values that should underlie any agreement dealing with the legacy of Indian residential schools.
It raises profound questions about the role of Church organizations in Canada, the proper relationship between them and the federal government, and the continuing relationship between Church organizations and Canada's First Nations.
Unresolved Indian residential schools issues are part of a Canadian social problem that is rooted in a failed social policy of assimilation prescribed and funded by government and at least partially carried out in residential institutions that we now know were not always safe for children.
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?
Our thinking has been guided by a few basic principles:
The federal government and Church organizations should be working together and building on their respective abilities to contribute to healing and reconciliation and restoration of right relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians, as requested by many former residents of the schools and other Canadians.
- Individuals harmed in residential schools should be fairly and quickly compensated.
- Church organizations found to be liable for damages should pay their fair share.
- Many Church organizations do not have the financial resources to pay a significant portion of compensation should they be found liable.
- Not all allegations that have been brought forward, especially through civil suits not based on criminal convictions, are valid; therefore, a fair validation process for each claim is essential.
- Church organizations not responsible for Indian residential schools are not liable, but may be prepared to provide support for healing and reconciliation out of a pastoral commitment.
- A comprehensive approach is needed that goes beyond cash compensation to individuals for specific injuries.
This goal was identified as a primary need by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples but is not possible with the federal government's approach, which, in current negotiations, deals only with cash compensation to individuals.
A Stumbling Block
One major obstacle to settlement with the federal government has been its insistence that all Catholics in Canada must pay for claims arising from Indian residential schools that may be awarded against a particular diocese or religious congregation. Herb Gray, deputy prime minister at the time, first made this position clear in a letter to the National Post on Nov. 3, 2001:
"As part of these discussions, the federal government sought to have commitments that the larger and more prosperous dioceses of the churches would help some smaller dioceses and orders that had been sued by victims directly."
Why is this position unacceptable? For centuries, the Catholic Church has been organized and operated on the basis of separate, distinct dioceses, religious orders and other entities, such as Catholic hospitals and universities.
Most of those organizations in Canada had no connection with Indian residential schools. The government is seeking money from organizations that have no legal obligations arising from Indian residential schools.
Second, it is necessary to understand that the percentage proposed by the federal government would result in a truly staggering amount for Canada's Catholics. Payment would not increase the amount of compensation a plaintiff would receive, but only reduce the amount that the federal government would otherwise have to pay.
This could only be accomplished by requiring members of the denominations to pay twice, once through their taxes and again by their Church contributions.
The government of Canada had formal and informal agreements with specific corporations for the operation of Indian residential schools. It is our belief, confirmed by court decisions, only those specific Church organizations should assume legal liability.
Because these organizations operated in remote areas, under dire circumstances, they were, and are, relatively poor. They have a limited ability to contribute financial and human resources to resolve claims.
Defending Indian residential school lawsuits, particularly claims brought by the federal government against a wide range of Church organizations has already consumed and continues to consume a good part of their assets.
It has been said publicly by the former deputy prime minister that it is not Canada's intention to close churches, to seize the assets of Church organizations, or to force sales of property in active use to satisfy settlements or judgments. Nor is it Canada's intention to impair the ability of Church organizations to continue to carry on their activities from which society benefits, as a whole.
Without an agreement with the federal government some of these Church organizations will be prevented from continuing their activities and will be forced into bankruptcy. The government, knowing that these organizations cannot pay, is now looking for other organizations in the denomination to pay instead, so that it can save money.
If organizations that had no involvement with the schools are, quite appropriately, not prepared to accept liability, what are they prepared to do? Some have expressed a profound sense of solidarity with aboriginal peoples and with Church members who are struggling under this burden.
They have indicated a willingness to make voluntary contributions to assist with healing, reconciliation and the development of right relationships. We believe other Catholic organizations and individuals will also want to participate in these new pastoral possibilities.
Church still ministers
Church organizations are present and continue to minister in aboriginal communities. Many are well equipped for the crucial task of reconciling aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians through the improvement of understanding and the development of mutual respect that comes with being together.
The proposal was made by Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian Church organizations associated with residential schools.The framework illustrates the vision of that proposal:
Contribution to settlement: A significant cash contribution to compensation by Church organizations of the four denominations found to have legal liability.
Healing and reconciliation: All the involved Church organizations have developed mechanisms to support community-based healing and reconciliation projects. Given a proper framework, we are confident this capacity can be expanded and enhanced in a voluntary way by the participation of those organizations that are not legally liable to pay for claims, as well as by concerned members of involved communities.
Life and work: Church organizations are committed to continuing their life and work in aboriginal communities, building on our existing presence in a way that helps to renew right relations.
Alternative redress: Church organizations are committed to the timely development and implementation of fair and effective non-adversarial processes to validate claims and assess compensation. These processes would reflect principles identified during the exploratory dialogues (between plaintiffs, the federal government and Church organizations) and Restoring Dignity, the Report of the Law Commission of Canada.
We believe our approach offers the federal government the means to conclude an appropriate agreement that is fair and comprehensive.
The federal government however, summarily dismissed our proposal.
We have re-affirmed our commitment to the principles it contains and to continuing negotiations with the federal government. We will endeavour to reopen those discussions.
(Sr. Marie Zarowny, a Sister of St. Ann, is chair of Catholic Organizations' Task Group on Indian Residential Schools.)