Bishop's Blog

Walking Forward Together

In one of his homilies (29/04/2013), Pope Francis commented on the text: "God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all" [1 Jn 1:5]. He pointed out that "we all have darkness in our lives, moments where everything, even our consciousness, is in the dark." But this does not mean we walk in darkness:

Walking in darkness means being overly pleased with ourselves, believing that we do not need salvation. That is darkness! When we continue on this road of darkness, it is not easy to turn back. Therefore, John continues, because this way of thinking made him reflect: 'If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us'. Look to your sins, to our sins, we are all sinners, all of us… This is the starting point. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful, He is so just He forgives us our sins, cleansing us from all unrighteousness… The Lord who is so good, so faithful, so just that He forgives.

Pope Francis urges us to stand in front of the Lord "with our truth of sinners," "with confidence, even with joy, without masquerading… shame is a virtue: blessed shame." This is the virtue that Jesus asks of us: humility and meekness.

The process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has brought about a painful awakening for so many Catholics, and we see our culpability much more clearly than we did before. Some of the darkness has been lifted and our "blessed shame" has occasioned many apologies, before and during the TRC process, and has taught us much about humility and meekness.

Although many priests, brothers, sisters and lay people served in the residential school with generosity, faithfulness, care and respect for their students, this was not always the case. The TRC final report rightly observes that when Christians, through the residential schools, belittled Indigenous students as pagans or demonized, and punished and terrorized them into accepting Christian beliefs, this was in fundamental contradiction to the core beliefs of Christianity. In addition to the reprehensible crimes of sexual abuse, the failures to respect the identity and freedom of Indigenous children outlined in the TRC report are saddening and must never be repeated.

The TRC's Call to Action, recommendation #48 states: "We call upon the church parties to the Settlement Agreement, and all other faith groups and interfaith social justice groups in Canada who have not already done so, to formally adopt and comply with the principles, norms, and standards of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for reconciliation."

Four Catholic organizations — the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Religious Conference, the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace — in responding to the questions raised on the legal concepts known as Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius (no one's land) have issued two documents on March 19, the Solemnity of St. Joseph, the principal saint of Canada.

The Catholic response to Call to Action #48 issues an appeal to all Catholics to make eight commitments in order to walk together in breaking open a future of acceptance, respect, justice, and reconciliation. I will cite four of those commitments that have particular relevance to our Diocese:

  1. Continue to work with Catholic educational institutions and programs of formation in learning to tell the history of Canada in a way that is truthful, ensuring proper treatment of the history and experience of Indigenous Peoples, including the experience of oppression and marginalization which resulted from the Indian Act, the Residential School system, and frequent ignoring or undermining of signed treaties.
  2. Work with centres of pastoral and clergy formation to promote a culture of encounter by including the study of the history of Canadian missions, with both their weaknesses and strengths, which encompasses the history of the Indian Residential Schools. In doing this, it will be important to be attentive to Indigenous versions of Canadian history, and for these centres to welcome and engage Indigenous teachers in the education of clergy and pastoral workers, assuring that each student has the opportunity to encounter Indigenous cultures as part of their formation.
  3. Encourage initiatives that would establish and strengthen a restorative justice model within the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates among Indigenous people are many times higher than among the general population, and prisons are not sufficiently places of reconciliation and rehabilitation. Such initiatives include the renewal of the criminal justice system through sentencing and healing circles and other traditional Indigenous ways of dealing with offenders where appropriate and desired by Indigenous Peoples.
  4. Support the current national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and work with others towards a healthier society where just relations flourish in families and communities, and where those most vulnerable are protected and valued.

The second document responds to the errors and falsehood perpetrated, often by Christians, during and following the so-called Age of Discovery. Both documents and appendixes can be found on the CCCB website,

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Bishop's
Related Themes CCCB Truth and Reconciliation Development and Peace

Truth and Reconciliation - Denied!

The purpose of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is to tell Canadians the story of the policy of the Government of Canada regarding "Indian Residential Schools" and the impact it had on Aboriginal children and their families. The following story is an addendum concerning Government policy and will not be told at any TRC hearing.

Chapter I - Historical Background and Legal Action Taken:

In 1999, 183 legal actions were commenced by former students of residential schools in southern Alberta against the Government of Canada. The Diocese of Calgary was named co-defendant in 56 of those actions. The Government of Canada, however, chose to Third Party the Diocese in all 183 actions regardless of whether the Diocese was sued by former students.

By 2003 all students had discontinued against the Diocese. Nevertheless, the Government of Canada continued prosecuting the claims.

Finally in March of 2007 all claims against the Diocese were dismissed by Order of Justice McMahon. The Diocese applied for costs that normally follow a successful defence. 

In January 2009 Justice McMahon denied the Diocese's application for costs and made a number of serious factual errors on the record. Instructions were given to our lawyers to file an appeal. Strange as it may seem, the practice-unique to Alberta-is to seek leave to appeal from the same Judge who heard the application for costs. Justice McMahon denied leave to appeal.

Nevertheless, the Diocese appealed to the Alberta Court of Appeal. In January 2010 the Government of Canada made an application to have our appeal summarily dismissed on the basis that the decision of Justice McMahon was final.

A panel of the Court of Appeal (Justices Conrad, Rowbotham, and Martin), dismissed the Government of Canada's application and ruled that there were serious matters to be tried. A different panel heard the appeal on June 3, 2010. It ruled it did not have jurisdiction unless the Diocese could meet the high threshold of proving bias on the part of Justice McMahon. It also ruled that there was nothing inherently prejudicial in Justice McMahon denying leave from his own decision.

The Diocese then filed a Leave Application to the Supreme Court of Canada. The Supreme Court dismissed the leave to appeal on December 23, 2010. Their dismissal in effect closed any legal course of action.

Chapter II - Natural Justice and Political Action:

The Government of Canada was respectfully asked to do two things. First of all, it was requested to address its unwarranted third partying of the Diocese, at considerable cost to the Diocese, when there was no factual basis for doing so after 2003, and reimburse the Diocese for the unjust costs incurred.

Secondly, the Government of Canada and the Attorney General of the Province of Alberta were asked to address the strange anomaly re the Alberta Court of Appeal, i.e., the requirement of applicants to bring applications for leave before the same justice who made the original Order as this constituted a breach of the Charter and is a denial of fundamental justice.

The Prime Minister referred the matter to the Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Development, and the Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada, both of whom simply stated that the government considered Justice McMahon's judgment final. No response has been received re the second request.

A subsequent letter was sent to the Prime Minister, citing pre-election campaign promises of new administrations marked by transparency, ethics and accountability, asking to have someone, somewhere in his government, answer the following three simple questions re residential schools litigation.

  1. Why was the Diocese Third Partied in the first place?
  2. Why was the Diocese Third Partied in the extra 127 cases? (By 2003 all students had discontinued against the Diocese. Nevertheless, the Government of Canada continued prosecuting the claims.)
  3. Why were the Third Party Actions against the Diocee not also dropped by the Government in 2003? (Finally in March of 2007 all claims were dismissed against the Diocese by Order of Justice McMahon.)

Neither Prime Minister Harper, or the Minister of Aboriginal and Northern Development, or the Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada have seriously attempted to answer any of the three questions in a straight forward, honest manner. Instead, obfuscation and avoidance seem to be the order of the day. The three questions remain unanswered.

Chapter III - Action of the Information Commissioner of Canada:

An application was made through the Access to Information and Privacy Directorate for the actual records pertaining to the Government's Third Partying of the Diocese of Calgary from 1999 to the present.

A release package CD, containing 463 pages, was received but 90% of the documents were blocked out due to section - "23. The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record request under this Act that contains information that is subject to solicitor-client privilege." 

A subsequent letter was sent to the Information Commissioner, alleging that this was not only a misuse of solicitor-client privilege, but constituted a grave injustice, reflected a totalitarian approach to governing, dismissed a legitimate attempt to know the facts and/or reasons behind government's decisions and policies that affect thousands of people.

On August 23, 2013 the Diocese was informed that the complaint has not been assigned to an investigator. So much for accountability to the people.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Bishop's
Related Themes Truth and Reconciliation

What is a Fair Share?

The discussions between the federal government and representatives of the Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian church organizations attempting to address the thousands of claims for alleged abuses by former students of residential schools has reached an impasse.

Herb Gray, the former Deputy Prime Minister, feels that the victims of physical and sexual abuse with claims have been waiting too long for compensation. That is why the federal government is offering to pay 70 per cent of that compensation. Mr. Gray hopes that the churches will agree to cover the remaining 30 percent.

Sr. Marie Zarowny, SSA, the Chair of the Catholic Organization’s Task Group, would agree with the first part, i.e. that individuals harmed in residential schools should be fairly and quickly compensated and that church organizations found to be liable for damages should pay their fair share. However, the unilateral government proposal is simplistic and unacceptable.

The impasse is not just about money.

It is also about the basic values that should underlie any agreement for dealing with the legacy of Indian residential schools. The unresolved residential school issues are part of a Canadian social problem that is rooted in a failed social policy of assimilation prescribed and funded by the federal government and at least partially carried out in residential institutions that we now know were not always safe enough for children.

In trying to address this legacy the churches’ representatives have been guided by a few guiding principles. Without attempting to be exhaustive, I would like to cite four of them.

Not all the allegations that have been brought forward, especially through suits not based on criminal convictions, are valid. Therefore, a fair validation process for each claim is essential to uphold the right of every Canadian to be considered innocent until proven guilty and to uphold the good name of innocent defendants, both individuals and organizations.

The bankruptcy of any active church organization would not help Aboriginal Canadians and would in fact be counterproductive.

Church organizations that were 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.

The federal government and the churches should be working together and building on their respective abilities to contribute to healing and reconciliation and to the restoration of right relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians. This goal was identified as a primary need by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples but the report continues to collect dust and the government seems content to simply throw money at a problem in the hopes that it will go away.

In my more cynical moments I’m inclined to think that the government’s suggested 70/30 per cent split isn’t as magnanimous as it seems. The government may simply be trying to cut its losses as it isn’t doing very well in recent court decisions despite more than one hundred lawyers working to advance its cause. It suggests another David and Goliath scenario.

Their solution also entails a double payment by members of the various denominations who would be paying once through their taxes and again through their churches. That’s like double jeopardy simply because you chose to worship in a particular church.

Furthermore, the government’s proposed solution would also inevitably mean a reduction of services and valued church-sponsored programs and ministry across Canada over a lengthy period of time and could lead to further alienation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians.

The proposal made ecumenically to the government by the Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian church organizations associated with residential schools balances a number of elements that are critical to an appropriate agreement. The following framework illustrates the vision of that proposal:

Commitment 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, 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 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 Exploratory Dialogues (between plaintiffs, the federal government and church organizations) and “Restoring dignity”, the Report of the Law Commission of Canada.

The government regrettably has summarily dismissed the proposal.

Sr. Zarowny would have done a better job than Mr. Gray as the government’s point-person.

☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus

Related Offices Bishop's
Related Themes Truth and Reconciliation
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