The federal cabinet has approved an agreement with the Anglican Church of Canada that will limit the church’s liability over Indian residential schools.
Public Works Minister Ralph Goodale, minister in charge of the federal Office of Indian Residential Schools Resolution, and the Anglican primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, made the announcement Nov. 20 at a joint news conference.
“I want to commend the remarkable moral leadership shown by the Anglican church,” said Mr. Goodale.
“For some years, we have been preoccupied with litigation. We can now return to our principal occupation, serving God and God’s world in ministries of healing, reconciliation and compassion,” said Archbishop Peers.
According to the agreement, which now goes to the church’s 30 dioceses for ratification, the church will contribute $25 million over five years toward a litigation settlement fund.
The diocesan ratification process could take up to three months, said Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the general secretary of General Synod who was the chief Anglican negotiator.
Although the church is committed to raising $25 million, the accord allows the national office – General Synod – and the dioceses to wind up the cost of maintaining legal defences in court cases.
Hundreds of natives have made alleged and proven claims of sexual and physical abuse suffered in a national boarding school system that operated from the mid-19th century into the 1970s.
The agreement caps two years of negotiations between church and government representatives.
Mr. Goodale also said the government is working on a new out-of-court approach to abuse claims that will speed up settlements. He said that he hopes to have an announcement about that within several weeks.
Mr. Goodale sent a 29-page draft agreement to cabinet in October.
Under the agreement, General Synod would contribute $3 million to the fund and dioceses would contribute $22 million. It is expected dioceses would contribute the same percentage of their budget to the fund as they now do to General Synod.
The diocese of Toronto would contribute the most — 20 per cent of the $22 million.
This formula represents a significant departure from the church’s earlier negotiating position, which was that dioceses not named in litigation should not have to contribute.
“We are more than simply legal entities,” said Archbishop Peers. “We are a church. The idea that some entities would stand by and see others fold is not who we are as a church,” he added.
Archbishop Peers also said that church officials have had preliminary assurances from some dioceses that they will contribute to the fund. “If we had had any response that this is a hopeless commitment, we wouldn’t be making it,” the primate said.
At their regular fall meeting in October, many diocesan bishops said they would urge their dioceses to support the agreement.
The church’s six wealthiest dioceses are expected to bear the largest share of the contributions to the $22-million diocesan share.
Ranked by contribution to General Synod in the year 2001, the six wealthiest dioceses are, in descending order: Toronto, Huron, Ottawa, New Westminster, Niagara and Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island.
The federal government has said that there are now about 5,000 lawsuits representing more than 12,000 plaintiffs concerning treatment they received in native residential schools. The total cost of settlements has been estimated at $1 billion.
Previous estimates indicated that without an agreement, the Anglican church could have been liable for as much as $60 million in settlement costs, plus ongoing litigation costs. The church has been spending about $100,000 a month on its legal defence.
Archbishop Peers said the agreement entails sacrifice. “The hard reality is the amount far exceeds the assets of the Anglican church and so we are appealing to the dioceses.”
The national church has said it expects revenue of $10.5 million in 2003.
Schools were also run by the Presbyterian, United and Roman Catholic churches. The four churches were negotiating together between the fall of 2000 to early this year, when the group disbanded and the Anglican church continued talks on its own.
Mr. Goodale said the Presbyterian and United churches have returned to the negotiating table and that the Anglican agreement “establishes some benchmarks and some templates.”
The Anglican church, which was involved in operating 26 of the 80 schools, has been named by more than 2,100 plaintiffs.
The agreement does not address native claims that the schools harmed language and culture. Mr. Goodale and Archbishop Peers said these issues are best addressed through healing programs and counselling.
“I’m very pleased this agreement has been reached, and we as indigenous and non-indigenous Anglicans can work together building healing relationships,” said Donna Bomberry, General Synod coordinator for indigenous ministry.
Archdeacon Larry Beardy, a Cree member of the Anglican negotiating team, said indigenous leaders will carry the message of the agreement to native Anglicans across the country.
In another development, a Calgary judge on Oct. 24 dismissed lawsuits against the Anglican church by people who claimed abuse in residential schools, saying there is “no evidence of direct involvement by the General Synod.”
Justice Terrence McMahon of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench, said only the church’s Missionary Society could be named in native residential schools lawsuits, since it was the body that signed contracts with the federal government to run the schools.
The judge dismissed all claims against General Synod and against the Anglican dioceses of Calgary between 1919 and 1969 and Athabasca between 1923 and 1969.