A funny kind of invitation from Ottawa

Published April 1, 2000

If you want to invite someone to dinner, apparently you sue them. That seems to be the latest in etiquette from the federal government. A government spokesman told the Anglican Journal that the reason Ottawa is suing the churches in residential schools cases is so that anyone and everyone involved is at the table.

It?s called a third-party suit: a former student sues Ottawa for proven or alleged abuse at one of the government residential schools that churches operated for the feds. The former student ? the plaintiff ? doesn?t sue the church denomination involved. So the federal government?s Department of Justice sues the church in order to spread the blame as widely as possible. The ridiculousness of the whole situation would be almost comical were it not for the effect on the churches, not to mention the delay it creates in settling claims.

Setting aside whether issuing a lawsuit is the way to issue a dinner invitation, part of the farce is how many people Ottawa wants at the table. It must be a fancy dinner indeed. Among the guests sought are the Pope and the Vatican state itself. So far, no one has thought to invite Archbishop George Carey, but possibly his invitation is delayed somehow. After all, since a lower court judge has already said the Pope can?t be ruled out in a suit related to schools run by the Oblates, why should George and the Church of England?s Church Commissioners be ruled out in relation to Anglican-run schools? In fact, since the Queen is temporal head of the Church of England, sue the realm! It?s not so far-fetched ? the New England Company, established in London in 1649 (long before the Diocese of Nova Scotia was formed in 1787) funded two of the schools in question and it still provides some monies to the Canadian church.

Trying to spread the blame might be defensible were it not for two key facts. First, the same government that is dragging churches in to lawsuits says it is also interested in proceeding with mediation, as opposed to the courts, as a way to settle some of the claims. The whole point of mediation is that it tries to avoid the expensive, destructive, aggressive, adversarial nature of lawsuits.

Secondly, it was the churches, not Ottawa, that first raised the issue of how inappropriate was the whole concept of residential schools and assimilation, as in the Anglican Church?s Hendry report of 1969. So the federal government has no basis for pretending to claim the high moral ground, calling other possible parties to account. On the contrary, Ottawa is most to be held to account by the Canadian public, both for creating the failed policies concerning Natives in the first place and for the profligate waste of funds in this area. That includes spending taxpayers? money to sue the churches ? institutions which, among other things, governments at all three levels expect to look after the poor, destitute and psychologically damaged people of Canadian society.

Besides spending tax revenue pursuing institutions that aim to help society, the legal action is costing the churches valuable cash. It means nothing for the civil service to file court papers that cost several hundred dollars to prepare. Meanwhile, churches have to scramble to find lawyers all across the country to represent them and pay court fees that rob them from doing constructive work in other areas of ministry.

One of the reasons put forward for hashing the issues out in court is fear of false claims of abuse. But are trials, whether civil or criminal, the way to go on this? Wouldn?t it be easier to pay proven victims one amount and set aside a pool of money for others who claim abuse? Native communities could then use whatever methods they want to validate claims and distribute money to claimants or possibly fund projects to help communities heal.

In national terms, the amounts would be minimal. Besides, it?s not unknown for governments to lay out tens of millions of dollars to bail out private corporations. Are individual Native people of less worth than companies and their shareholders?

Churches have accepted their responsibility in the unfolding scenario; they were the first to apologize for past wrongs and through political support of Native organizations and financial contributions to healing funds they have indicated a willingness to make restitution and reparation. Ottawa made a guarded apology two years ago. It?s time Justice Minister Anne McLellan and Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault came to the table with money and a plan to prove those words weren?t hollow politics. Native plaintiffs and churches are already at the table. The invitation is for Ottawa to join them to work out a fair and just agreement.


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