Church’s task now is to convince the people

Published March 1, 2003

So it is final. All 30 dioceses have ratified the residential schools agreement, signing on to the liability to which General Synod pledged them more than three months ago.

Now comes the church’s challenge of persuading its members that the agreement with the federal government to end residential schools litigation is a good one.

The church’s national office forged the accord after more than two long years of slogging it out in drab negotiating rooms, dealing with bureaucrats who sometimes had sympathy for the church’s position, but little understanding of the church, its corporate structure and what it stands for. Though the same government was in power during all the negotiations, three federal cabinet ministers came and went during that time, each of them bringing to the negotiating table new and varying levels of awareness of the complexity of the issues.

Then, finally, an agreement-in-principle was reached and initialled last Nov. 20 by Jack Stagg, the government’s chief negotiator, and Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the national church’s general secretary. Archdeacon Boyles was the church’s chief negotiator and the person rightfully credited with navigating the often-turbulent waters of tough deal making with the government, a task for which few clergy would imagine they are equipped.

Ralph Goodale, government minister in charge of the residential schools portfolio, and the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, will sign the final agreement at a ceremony later this month.

National office staff and church negotiators had no illusions back in November of being home free once they’d penned the accord. “When was the last time the 30 dioceses agreed on anything?” went the grim joke. So began an exhaustive information campaign by an already-taxed general secretary, primate, aboriginal negotiators and team of solicitors who already give of their time as legal advisers to their dioceses. They criss-crossed the country, attending synods to explain the agreement and field questions, occasionally from skeptical members who had a healthy mistrust of the national office and of all things that appear to originate in Toronto.

A collective breath was held over the second weekend in February, when the three final dioceses were to vote. Calgary, the last to examine the accord, was the diocese most in question since in some ways it seemingly had the most to lose. It had been extricated from a residential school lawsuit late last year by a judicial ruling and had voiced reluctance to open itself up again to liability. You could practically hear the exhalation of that breath after the last vote count.

Most dioceses sound confident they will meet their new financial obligations. Several dioceses voted unanimously in favour of the agreement, either at special synods or executive council meetings. New Westminster, already strapped due to financial boycotts by eight parishes, voted not only to pay its portion of the residential schools settlement, but also to assist other dioceses in British Columbia in meeting their commitments to the fund. Algoma similarly voted to chip in to cover others’ shortfalls, if necessary.

Other dioceses – like Calgary and Nova Scotia/Prince Edward Island – had healthy amounts of discussion and dissent about the agreement. This is encouraging, assuming the arguments for and against came from reasoned, educated positions. To be sure, anybody who wanted to learn more about the agreement had only to look or ask for the information, which was provided in abundance by General Synod.

That the votes were in favour after the debates perhaps makes the decisions more meaningful for the participants. Hopefully, all those who voted on the accord can truly feel that they made an informed decision about which they can feel a sense of ownership. A group of people who say ‘yea’ for something because it is expected of them or because they feel they have no choice cannot say the same thing.

Still, the church is not out of the woods. If anyone thought convincing 30 diverse dioceses was tough, just multiply that by several thousand for an idea of the job facing the church in helping Anglicans buy in – and chip in – to the settlement.

It will be no small task to convince this group, numbering more than 600,000 (though the number of identifiable givers to the church is about a third of that figure), of the worthiness of the settlement fund. As the primate notes in his column on the opposite page, many Canadians have little knowledge of aboriginal people. Many Anglicans are also likely fatigued by the talk of the church’s work on the residential schools issue. Enough, already, they say.

But, whether they sit in the pews of urban parishes, in log churches in First Nation communities or even if they long ago gave up on a church that wronged them, they are part of its legacy and its future, a part of the body of the church which is hurting.

“Why should I pay for abuse I did not perpetrate?” goes one of the common refrains. If one holds the belief that the church is a family, not only a corporate body, then the whole of the church is responsible. The amounts? More than manageable for most dioceses and parishioners who accept their share. Archbishop Terence Finlay challenged each individual, household and church group in the diocese of Toronto to make an offering of $100; as one Toronto synod member joked, that translates to about three cases of beer.

It will not only require leadership by General Synod, the dioceses and individual parishes to continue the education process for Anglicans who still fail to understand what this all has to do with them.

It will also require willingness on the part of parishioners to listen.


Keep on reading

Skip to content