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 of Calgary