The British Columbia Court of Appeal in mid-December ruled that the federal government is fully liable for abuse suffered by students at Indian residential schools ? a decision that could have significant implications for the churches that helped manage the schools.
The five-member court overturned a 1998 ruling by the B.C. Supreme Court that found the federal government 75 per cent liable and the United Church of Canada 25 per cent liable for sexual abuse committed by a dormitory supervisor at the Alberni Indian Residential School on Vancouver Island.
“It’s an incredibly important decision. We don’t know yet what this judgment fully means and of course we’ll have to wait to see if the feds or any of the plaintiffs appeal, but it certainly seems significant,” Keith Howard, a spokesman for the B.C. Conference of the United Church, told the Globe and Mail newspaper.
The appeal court rejected an earlier judgment by Mr. Justice Donald Brenner that “the church ? acted as the agent of Canada in providing supervision and management” of the school. The court referred to a 1966 decision of the Canada Labour Relations Board concerning a school operated by the Roman Catholic Oblate brothers in which the board ruled that school staff were federal employees, not church workers. Therefore, it said, “the government of Canada is admittedly liable for the wrongs done by (the dormitory supervisor at the Alberni school) ? the church should not, in this case, have been held liable.”
The Anglican Church of Canada has been affected by a 1999 decision by the B.C. Supreme Court, which ruled that the diocese of Cariboo and the General Synod were 60 per cent liable and the federal government was 40 per cent liable for sexual abuse suffered at the former St. George’s residential school in Lytton, B.C.
Earlier this year, General Synod (the church’s national office) agreed to pay 30 per cent of proven damage claims arising from its management of 26 boarding schools for aboriginal students. The accord with the federal government also limited the church’s liability to $25 million. All Canadian Anglican dioceses and the General Synod agreed to contribute to the settlement fund.
The Anglican church’s General Secretary, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, said that while the ruling was worth watching, the Anglican Church of Canada has a binding agreement with the federal government. The financial commitment to help those affected by residential schools was a moral one, not only a legal one, he said. The agreement between the Anglican church and the federal government, however, states that if another denomination strikes an agreement with the government that is more beneficial to the church, the Anglican church may revisit its agreement as well. The Anglican Church of Canada will be discussing this with the federal government, said Archdeacon Boyles.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada signed a similar (30:70) agreement with the federal government concerning the apportionment of liability. The United Church of Canada has not and Roman Catholic orders, which operated the majority of the schools, have argued that the federal government’s decision to pay 70 per cent of damages and seek 30 per cent from churches is unfair.
The Anglican diocese of New Westminster, which includes Vancouver but not Vancouver Island, said in a statement that it would continue to raise money for the $25 million settlement fund. “The decision to help survivors was taken as a moral, not a legal obligation,” said Gordon Lee, co-chair of the fundraising campaign.