Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 18, 2002
Reconciliation and residential schools
African precedent holds hope for avoiding endless wrangling in court
By FR. CAMILLE PICHÉ
Special to the WCR
Addressing the thousands of lawsuits launched by former residential school students in a just, compassionate and effective manner is a major challenge for the government, the churches and indeed all Canadians.
Of great concern for the churches is not only the reputation of its members but the validity of the Christian missionary endeavour itself. Men and women religious responded to Christ's mandate to "Go to all nations" (Matthew 28:19-20) to proclaim the Good News of God's infinite love and mercy.
Though they were not always up to the task due to inadvertence, personal failure or unenlightened social dictates (that is, colonization), they did their best to be true witnesses to the Gospel and many did so with heroic virtue.
Without pretending to be exhaustive or to offer easy solutions to complex issues, I want to propose the concept of restorative justice as our best hope for reconciliation. As the theme of Restorative Justice Week indicates, we must work Towards a Justice that Heals.
For over 150 years, Canadian men and women religious and countless lay people devoted themselves under the most stringent conditions to provide a future for aboriginal children through education.
In remote areas where people still lived off the land, regular attendance at day schools was impractical. Seen as the best alternative, residential schools were built by the government and run by vowed religious men and women. Despite the limitations and imperfections of these institutions, they produced thousands of educated men and women who are today great leaders among their people.
Regrettably, there were occurrences of sexual and physical abuse committed in some of these schools. Sexual abuse is a serious crime and we are committed to seeking an honest and just resolution of these matters.
As the number of accusations grows, certain factors make validation difficult. Often the alleged events occurred decades ago. Most of the alleged perpetrators are deceased and cannot defend themselves. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to arrive at the truth.
Some have said, and I agree, that the harm of residential schools, in addition to overt abuses, lay more in the countless small indignities that students experienced. It is true that these hurts can leave lasting scars. What is less evident is our ability to say with assurance that these hurts are directly caused by experiences that happened in school as opposed to bad experiences suffered elsewhere.
I can certainly see the hand of crass opportunism in the way perceived harms were converted into claims. At the same time I recognize that absent any serious forum to deal with genuine hurts, they have been swept into a flood of lawsuits and into a court process that simply cannot deal with them properly.
The Oblates' Grandin Province alone faces over 3,000 claims in the courts. A legal quagmire has been created, draining assets, straining relationships and impairing the ability of religious institutions to fulfill their missions. What will make things right for those who were hurt and for those who abused them or were unjustly accused?
I can anticipate that, after great financial and personal cost, the courts will likely dismiss many claims simply because small indignities have been dressed up to appear as compensable abuses. Other claims, serious on their face, may also be dismissed either because they are not true or, because of the passage of time, cannot be shown to be true.
In the end religious institutions and innocent people will be devastated and claimants convinced more than ever that their pain doesn't matter. Whatever is attained is not likely to resemble either justice or restoration.
The resolution framework being developed by the government is a potentially kinder and gentler litigation management process. However, it will not be the dialogue that I believe reconciliation demands. Rather than bringing people together, this process will keep the plaintiffs and religious institutions apart.
In dealing with apartheid, South Africa opted for restorative justice. In the reconciliation process, many abandoned their right to prosecute and chose to participate in the Truth and Reconciliation process.
At the heart of this initiative is ubuntu, a principle of African jurisprudence whose concern is restoration, not retribution. It seeks to restore broken relationships and to rehabilitate both the victim and the perpetrator. Ubuntu allows for the reintegration of the perpetrator into the community he or she has formerly injured.
Matthew Coon Come, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations has publicly endorsed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Canada. I believe that church, aboriginal, and government leaders can summon the vision, wisdom and leadership to develop a Canadian version of ubuntu to address the legacy of residential schools. The federal government can create a climate for this to occur.
I invite the entire Catholic community and others to discuss and encourage ways that restorative justice can foster reconciliation with former residential school students. Please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your advice, opinions and comments. Let us be guided by a concern for renewing broken relationships as we journey towards "a justice that heals."
(Father Camille Piché is provincial superior of the Missionary Oblates Grandin Province. He may be reached at email@example.com.)