Bishop's Blog

Residential Schools

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

While driving last week from Calgary to Pincher Creek for a school celebration and speaking engagement, I received a call on my cell-phone informing me that a Native peaceful protest, accompanied by media presence, was going to take place outside the church "to put pressure on the bishop." The protest didn't materialize but I already feel pressured, frustrated and rather powerless.

As a religious leader, I feel caught up in an historical, financial and social quagmire. A report from Ernst and Young has concluded that the Anglican Church of Canada will be bankrupt by next year unless the federal government agrees to save it from the spiralling costs of residential lawsuits.

Bishop D. Croteau has predicted a similar fate for the R.C. Diocese of MacKenzie-Fort Smith due to litigation fees and settlements arising out of lawsuits from former students of native residential schools.

Peter Lauwers, a member of the prestigious national law firm Miller Thomson, says native lawsuits pose an urgent public policy question, but Ottawa has ducked its accountability by allowing the nearly 10,000 claims to pile up in Canada's courts. This benefits no one, he says, except the government and groups of lawyers.

We are also facing a number of lawsuits in the Diocese of Calgary. Unfortunately, when the last residential lawsuit is settled, reconciliation will be no closer.

Reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations is of fundamental importance for all Canadians. Government policy through the 1800s assumed Native people, as nations, would disappear. Through most of the 1900s, government policy either ignored Aboriginal rights or actively sought to extinguish them. Assimilation became the goal and the residential schools one of means. In 1857, an Act to Encourage the Gradual Civilization of the Indian Tribes was passed. It is now clear, however, that all of these policies and assumptions were wrong.

Catholic missionaries generally believed that one could not bring the Christian gospel to a people except in their mother tongue. Missionaries who learned Native languages were among the compliers of 141 dictionaries in 27 different languages, and 74 grammars in Native languages. They also translated stories, legends, hymns, prayer books, catechisms and translations of Biblical texts into Native languages. Religion classes and liturgical celebrations were often places where Native languages were used and practised.

Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge, with profound regret, those dimensions of Catholic mission history that were not only too closely identified with government policy but contributed to the suffering of so many.

Some children in residential schools suffered physical and sexual abuse. The schools also contributed to the diminishment of languages, cultures and communities. Even today, these factors contribute to continuing harm in Aboriginal communities.

The degree of harm caused by residential schools is difficult to determine in precise terms. The Federal government also built day schools that attracted more First Nations children than did the residential schools. In 1920, there were 3,081 pupils enrolled in residential schools; 7,277 were enrolled in day schools. In 1946, 8,865 in residential schools; 7.573 in day schools. In 1973-74, 4,490 in residential schools; 42,022 in provincial schools. Some historians point out that only a fifth to a third of Aboriginal children attended residential schools but the loss of language and culture were much broader, indicating other factors at work, such as the Indian Act.

The federal Indian Act established a context of assimilation within which the schools played a significant role. Another enormous factor was the collapse of the traditional Native economic activities, such as fur trading, brought on by European settlement. The pull of technologically advanced economic activity in mainstream Canada also played a part. The disruption wrought by a combination of these factors was universal, with or without residential schools.

The Federal government's exclusive authority over Aboriginal peoples derives from section 91 (24) of The Constitution Act (1867), which gives the federal government the exclusive authority to pass laws relating to "Indians and lands reserved for Indians."

Historian John S. Milloy describes the relationship between the church and government this way: "The school system was founded and operated, in fact, through a church-state partnership, a partnership in which the government was the senior partner. It was the government who provided the core funding, set the standards of care, was to supervise the administration of the schools, and controlled the children who were 'wards of this department'... Essentially, the residential school system was a creature of the federal government even though the children in the schools were, in most cases in the immediate care of the churches. Despite the government's authority, however, neither its 'right' to protect children nor its responsibility to them was faithfully executed."

Individuals who were sexually or physically abused in residential schools have the right to seek compensation for damages, in keeping with the practices of Canadian law. Both church organizations and the government of Canada must pay compensation where liability is established.

From the earliest days of European settlement the dominant ideology was colonialism. Church people, while sharing this dominant ideology, have at the same time provided the strongest and most consistent voices championing rights for Aboriginal persons. The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples noted: "of all the non-governmental institutions in Canadian society, religious institutions have perhaps the greatest potential to foster awareness of and understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people."

During the past 30 years, since breaking with the government policy of assimilation, church organizations have played a particularly strong role in advocating for Aboriginal justice. At the same time, Aboriginal persons have taken an increasingly prominent role in the leadership of many church organizations. Lawsuits against church organizations have not changed this. The churches continue to promote healing and advocate for native rights, and are committed to assisting with reconciliation and healing.

However, it's incumbent upon the federal government to develop a better social policy response than its current ad hoc basis of responding, its aggressive pursuit of church organizations - even when the plaintiff chooses not to do so, and its refusal to negotiate cultural or cross-generational claims.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Bishop's Diocesan Curia
Related Themes Natives Truth and Reconciliation

More on Bill 11

Our health care system is widely perceived to be in crisis. Indeed, there is more than enough evidence to support such a conclusion and the point made by the government that “the status quo is not an option” seems persuasive. However, despite the amendments, I don’t believe that Bill 11 is the answer.

As a result of my last venture into the health care debate, I received a number letters disagreeing with my views. The arguments fell into different categories.

Category 1 - MONEY

“If public administration were to mean that providers of health care would be given funding to provide necessary care while working under fairly general guidelines and under fiscal control, the system might work.”

My response is that “might” is a bit weak but it’s a moot point as such a state of affairs doesn’t yet exist. Although more money needs to be committed to health care delivery, the solution isn’t simply infusing more money for more capacity and more services.


“Public administration of hospitals has been proven to be inefficient, expensive, unworkable and beyond repair.”

This thesis is unproven but accepted as a given by those who consistently fail to recognize that quite significant improvements in hospital efficiency took place during the period of the cuts e.g. the excessive use of inpatient beds has been eliminated. As a matter of fact, the pendulum may have swung too far.

Category 3 - WAITING LISTS

“Because of hospital closures, waiting lists have be unacceptably prolonged, the only alternative is providing surgical care for simpler conditions in a private clinic...”

I have a problem with the conclusion. We don’t have to go down that road and we shouldn’t just yet. We probably need to tone down the rhetoric and acquire more hard data to define the problem – who is waiting, how long, why, and what is the most effective response. Most of the data tends to be anecdotal and this is a great tool for extracting money from the political system but not all that useful in developing a strategic plan.

The privatization option is particularly odious, because by its very nature it rewards the creation and preservation of waiting lists. This raises the interesting transparency question – precisely who profits by the privatizing of health care?

Nevertheless, we do have a real problem, especially those waiting for care. What we need are new options, new approaches on both a large and small scale. The approach to solving the waiting list problem re MRIs is perhaps instructive. The waiting period in the public system for an MRI has been measured in months; in the private system, days.

However, now that the pressure is on, the Calgary Regional Health Authority recently reversed itself and said that it will add an extra shift and/or work weekends to improve this situation, i.e., hire new personnel, which maximizes utilization and cuts down on outside providers and improves access. An interesting development! What they haven’t admitted publicly yet is that it’s also cheaper in the long run.

We should be exploring other cost saving measures, e.g., a national Pharmacare program to lessen the ever escalating costs of drugs, expanded home care, reconsideration of roles of nurse practitioners in delivering primary care, etc.

Category 4 - LEFT WING NUTS

“If you don’t agree with Bill 11, then you must be some kind of “left-wing nut.”

Such summary dismissive tactics miss the mark. However, there is good precedent for them in New Testament times – the townsfolk at Nazareth upon hearing Jesus address them in the synagogue reacted similarly: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of town, and led him up to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.” They probably thought he was a left-wing nut too! His proclamation provoked a reaction because he challenged their behaviour and very being because they hadn’t heard and internalized the message as evidenced by their complacency and compromises.

However, I suppose that there is some legitimacy to the leftist allegation when you consider that since Medicare is financed by taxes, and available to all free of charge, a greater share of the burden is carried by those with higher incomes and the principal beneficiaries are those in the poorest health. It is certainly clear that any shift from public towards more private funding would transfer income from lower to higher income people, as well as from the ill to the healthy. Taxes are correlated with income; private payments are not.

Category 5 - HUMOUR

An author, who chose to remain anonymous, put an interesting spin on things in this recently received e-mail:

When some doctors were asked to comment on the Alberta government’s Bill 11:

  • the allergists voted to scratch it;
  • the dermatologists preferred no rash moves;
  • the gastroenterologists had a gut feeling about it;
  • the microsurgeons were thinking along the same vein;
  • the neurologists thought the administration “had a lot of nerve”;
  • the obstetricians stated they were labouring under a misconception;
  • the ophthalmologists considered the idea short-sighted;
  • the orthopedists issued a joint resolution;
  • the parasitologists said, “Well, if you encyst”;
  • the pathologists yelled, “Over my dead body!”;
  • the pediatricians said, “Grow up!”;
  • the proctologists said, “We are in arrears”;
  • the psychiatrists thought it was madness;
  • the radiologists could see right through it;
  • the internists thought it was a hard pill to swallow;
  • the plastic surgeons said, “This puts a whole new face on the matter”;
  • the podiatrists thought it was a big step forward;
  • the physiotherapists thought they were being manipulated;
  • the urologists felt the scheme wouldn’t hold water;
  • the anesthesiologists thought the whole idea was a gas;
  • the cardiologists didn’t have the heart to say no;
  • the audiologists were deaf to the idea; and finally,
  • the surgeons decided to wash their hands of the whole thing.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Health Care Bishop's
Related Themes Health Care

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