Church struggles with native abuse lawsuits

By on September 1, 1998

Closing arguments will be heard beginning Sept. 28 in the residential schools case in Vancouver in which Floyd Mowatt is suing the Anglican Church and the federal government for abuse he suffered at the hands of a former child-care worker.

But recent events indicate the Anglican Church itself may be a long way from seeing any sort of closure to the residential schools issue, as a number of other lawsuits have been filed against it in the last few months.

There are signs, however, that ongoing talks between Native groups, the government and the churches may eventually lead to a way out of the quagmire of lawsuits.

‘We want to put our emphasis on healing and reconciliation in communities’

—Jim Boyles
General Secretary, Anglican Church of Canada

“We have been in discussions with the Assembly of First Nations,” says Shawn Tupper of the Department of Indian Affairs. “I wouldn’t say we’re close to a deal. The discussions are ongoing. We’re looking at potential alternative dispute models.

“The problem is how to come up with a process that is sensitive to people’s needs that still asks the hard questions. At the end of the day, people will still have to prove their cases… Verification is going to be critical.”

The Anglican Church and federal government have both formally apologized to Native Canadians for the harms they suffered during the decades the schools were in operation across the country. The church through its primate, Michael Peers, apologized in 1993 and the government followed in January this year in an apology delivered by Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart.

Both have also established healing funds, as have the other churches who were involved in the 80 residential schools over the years – the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church and to a lesser extent, the Presbyterian Church.

Those responses haven’t been enough for some Natives who report being brutally assaulted by the people who were supposed to be educating and caring for them during their formative years.

The last year has seen a mushrooming of the number of lawsuits against the churches and the government. A successful judgment against the United Church and the government in June may encourage more claims.

The United Church is appealing the judgment that found it and the federal government vicariously liable for abuse suffered by Natives at a Vancouver Island residential school. The church acknowledges the wrongs that went on at the school but says the government, not it, should be held liable. The judge has yet to rule on damages.

The appeal has triggered anger among some Natives who accuse the church of evading its responsibilities. It’s an image problem the Anglican Church also faces while it defends itself against lawsuits launched by Natives, at the same time proclaiming its support.

“We want to put our emphasis on healing and reconciliation in communities,” says the Anglican Church’s general secretary Jim Boyles.

“The justice system is built on an adversarial model. It’s not particularly helpful in achieving justice or healing and reconciliation in these cases. The task of the church in interpreting its actions and its roles at this stage is very difficult. But it’s important to continue to emphasize our primary goal is to stand with indigenous people in their journey of healing.”

While the government may be able to meet whatever financial obligations the courts decide it has, the Anglican Church is not so financially blessed. Nor is the diocese of Cariboo, which is also being sued by Mr. Mowatt in the case that wraps up in September.

The diocese is using its undesignated trusts to pay its share of the legal bills, Mr. Boyles said. But the diocese shares in a grant and would have great difficulty shelling out a large sum of money for a court award.

The national church had some limited insurance coverage which is paying part of its legal fees in the Mowatt case. But when it comes to compensation, it too would face problems.

Only the church’s undesignated trusts may be put toward such costs and those are “not of large significance,” he said.

The churches have all argued the federal government ought to be playing a bigger role in compensating Natives since it directed the policy that led to the formation of the residential schools.

The Anglican Church argues in the Mowatt case that it did not run St. George’s School; the government did, based on an agreement it signed in 1922 with school founder, the New England Company.

While the parties may differ over who owes what, everyone seems to agree that costly and time-consuming lawsuits which can serve to re-victimize the victims are not the way to resolve the issue.

The Anglican Church has distributed $450,000 from its healing fund over the last six years on initiatives such as healing circles, conferences, school reunions, women’s gatherings and training initiatives for counsellors, says Donna Bomberry, the church’s indigenous ministries co-ordinator.

Such grants are available to communities, not for individual settlements.

The churches continue to meet periodically with each other and with Native groups to talk about alternatives.

“When the courts clarify the issues of responsibility, there may be ways for the churches, indigenous peoples and the government to work together to facilitate alternative methods of confronting the issues involved,” Mr. Boyles said.

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