Church must increase pressure on government

By on September 1, 2000

THE CHRETIEN GOVERNMENT is playing hardball with churches on the residential schools issue and so far is outhitting and outpitching them in the public relations battle.

Shawn Tupper, residential schools director for Indian Affairs, has said worshippers, not taxpayers, should be first in line to pay for abuse committed against former Indian schoolchildren in the schools. He has also said non-Christians shouldn’t have to pay for church wrongs, conveniently forgetting it was the federal government on behalf of all Canadians, non-Christians included, that created and administered the federal, not church, residential-school policy.

Mr. Tupper’s boss, Indian Affairs Minister Robert Nault, told a Native Anglican bishop that the government has a responsibility to protect taxpayers. But Anglicans pay taxes too. Jane Stewart, the former Indian Affairs minister, has said churches need to “feel some pain.” She is also said to be one of the most vociferous voices in cabinet preventing the government from offering a plan to the churches.

Canadians are being seriously misled by all this spin and Anglicans are confused as to just what their church is guilty of and how their leaders are handling the situation.

There are three broad questions behind the issue: what was the relationship between the Native inhabitants of the continent and European settlers? what was the role of government and churches in the residential school history? how did the Anglican Church make its decisions about involvement in the schools?

First, variations in culture among Native North Americans were relatively as great as the variation among the Europeans. Some had fairly established cultures, some were primitive.

Europeans who sailed west to the Americas are now portrayed as evil marauders. Today’s French and English might as well file a similar complaint with Julius Caesar’s descendants for conquering Gaul, or ask why Natives didn’t sail east to discover and conquer Europe.

In the end, some treaties were honoured and many weren’t. Native tribes were frequently cajoled or forced to move to poor quality land by successive British and Canadian governments, but it is nothing short of wilfully misleading romantic fiction to portray Native life before Europeans arrived as idyllic Elysian Fields where children played with fawns. Life, by all reasonable accounts, was mostly nasty, brutish and short.

Sadly, it far too often still is, attempts over decades to change that having failed miserably.

The evidence is in living conditions for most Native people on and off reserves: unemployment, ill-health, disease, alcoholism and suicide are all too common. No, they don’t own all of Canada, as some of their leaders suggest. And their culture was irretrievably changed centuries ago when Europeans introduced them to guns and horses. But our Native people need to be given a real choice to decide whether to join the multicultural society other Canadians are building or live apart from the rest of civilization.

The federal government was given responsibility for Native peoples when Canada was founded. It decided Native children must attend school just as the provinces required non-Native children to attend school. To help them educate the Natives, the government turned to the churches (who already had close relationships with Natives from their missionary work) to help run the schools. Eventually, the government took over the schools and made the teachers and other workers civil servants. Some of those civil servants physically and sexually abused children in their care. Some of those people are seeking redress for those wrongs.

The government is pretending this was the fault of the churches. In a country where there is little public support for institutional religion (especially Christianity), the churches make a convenient scapegoat. There is no evidence to suggest that Anglicans had anything but the best motives in wanting to bring the gospel message of grace, salvation and love to Native people and that the majority of teachers were anything but good and themselves endured isolation, poor pay and poor conditions to do their best for the children in their care.

The churches have owned up to their role in permitting conditions where abusers could thrive. (Only about 100 of 1,600 claims against the Anglican Church are for physical or sexual abuse, but settling those could cost more than $20 million, not including lawyers’ fees). The government fears the overall bill will be huge and is trying to avoid telling taxpayers that previous governments failed to supervise civil servants properly, resulting in people being hurt. Bottom line: blame the churches as long as you can, then it won’t become an election issue.

The last question is really about who in the Anglican Church is affected today by the lawsuits.

Too many Anglicans still believe this is an issue that doesn’t affect them, that it’s a problem for the General Synod and some unfortunate select dioceses.

In a recent edition of the Newfoundland Churchman, Bishop of Eastern Newfoundland Don Harvey wrote, “this does not directly affect us as a diocese.” The chancellor of Toronto, Robert Falby, distributed a memorandum to churches in the diocese assuring parishioners that parish and diocesan assests were safe from plundering lawyers. Both positions are misleading.

First, it is a principle of Christianity that what affects one member of the body affects all the members. Even if there were no other connection between the church in Newfoundland and the Diocese of Qu’Appelle in Saskatchewan, the fact that the diocese in Regina is being sued out of existence is a matter that directly affects Anglicans in Newfoundland and everywhere else in the country. Moreover, all the dioceses benefit from various ministries and services provided by the General Synod. Without this newspaper, for instance, it is likely that postal rates for diocesan newspapers would be eight times the current rate, putting most of them out of business.

It is also important to remember that the dioceses had a crucial part to play in General Synod’s involvement in residential schools. It is the dioceses who created General Synod to carry out work on their collective behalf, it is their delegates who set its policies and direction and it is the dioceses who continue to fund General Synod. Which brings us to Chancellor Falby’s assurances. Since the dioceses are and were intimately involved in the work of the General Synod and since parishes fund their dioceses and participate in diocesan government, there would seem to be lots of room for an enterprising lawyer to suggest that although the Diocese of Toronto had no direct involvement in residential schools and although it is a separate legal and corporate entity, its assets might still be liquidated to pay claims. That is, until the Supreme Court of Canada rules otherwise – and there is no certainty in that Group of Nine.

Certainly such a claim should be vigorously defended. It makes no more sense to say a parish in Toronto should pay for the sins of a teacher in a Saskatchewan church school than that the city of Toronto should pay for the abuse committed by the same federal civil servant in that school. But no one can guarantee the courts will see it that way.

And since all Canadians elect the federal government, if individual parishes are forced to sell their churches to pay for crimes committed outside their area, it follows that all Canadian taxpayers should pay for civil servants found guilty in criminal or civil court.

So far, there is little evidence that churches or government are making headway on these issues. Churches are so wracked with guilt they can’t even defend themselves against the most outrageous charges. Recently, a Native United Church minister claimed her family was “destroyed” by the Anglican Church, so she argued the United Church shouldn’t even express its support for Anglicans in the current crisis. Never mind that the United Church also faces residential schools claims, or that the “Anglican Church” didn’t destroy anybody, or that Christianity teaches people to forgive one another.

In the end, not only did the United Church withdraw its motion of support but the Anglican Church’s General Secretary said he wasn’t even disappointed by the turn of events.

He should have been, as should we all.

It’s unclear to many Anglicans what their national leaders are doing. All right-thinking people support restitution to proven victims of sexual or physical abuse – and that doesn’t mean children who were strapped like any others in the country, it means the ones who were viciously assaulted by cowardly brutes.

The church needs to step up its public campaign to pressure the government to create a workable solution that compensates those victims quickly.

It might even be time for the Primate to pick up the phone and call the prime minister. There’s certainly plenty to talk about.

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