Council must now choose its path carefully

By on April 1, 2003

In the middle of a three-month-long deep freeze in this part of the world, it is difficult to reconcile this month with the coming spring and Easter. Still, it is without a doubt a time for new beginnings.

With last month’s signing of an agreement on residential schools litigation between the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada, both now have the opportunity for a new relationship with indigenous people.

What a pity, then, that the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) has now disassociated itself from that agreement, saying the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process covered by the accord further victimizes those who were abused.

The council met with the primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, just one day before the signing ceremony to ask him not to sign the agreement. Council members said they oppose the proposed ADR process because of its invasive questions (intended to assess the level of abuse suffered) and because survivors are required to waive all future claims for loss of language and culture in order to secure a settlement for physical and sexual abuse.

The council made its case in a statement sent to most media an hour after the signing ceremony.

The ADR process and the details of the release form are not set in stone. The church is not satisfied with the early drafts and will continue to press for changes. The primate said as much at the signing ceremony.

While the ADR is still a work in progress, the council condemned the proposed condition requiring complainants to agree not to sue in the future for loss of language and culture. ACIP expressed its fear that waiving the right to any future claims extinguishes “our aboriginal rights to our languages, cultures, and traditions.”

Besides being standard practice in legal settlements, out of court or not, this condition cannot come as a surprise. The government and the church have said repeatedly that they believe the courts are not the appropriate forum to address these issues, but rather, both have committed funds to language and culture recovery programs. The Anglican Church of Canada has spent more than $1 million on healing projects over the last decade, including culture and language preservation, and the federal government has committed nearly half a billion dollars to aboriginal language and cultural initiatives over the next 10 years.

ACIP also objected to the fact that the ADR process would award monetary damages according to a grid system, with more severe abuse meriting greater compensation. An ADR may indeed be unpleasant, but surely no more so than a conventional court case. Proper stewardship of the funds — both taxpayers’ dollars and $25 million of the church’s money — requires a responsible process to ensure that those who suffered are appropriately compensated.

The council’s statement concluded that if the primate signed the agreement, he would not be representing ACIP. Council members, said the statement, would be returning to their communities to advise their “people of the pitfalls of the agreement, and to warn them of the dangers of the alternative dispute resolution process.”

This is truly sad and the timing of ACIP’s statement is exceptionally unfortunate. It certainly cast a shadow on the signing ceremony, though the council did not make any moves to upstage the event — its members only boycotted it.

The deal between the church and the government was not just another well-meaning, non-native initiative gone wrong. The road to this agreement with the government was a long one for the Anglican negotiating team, which included committed staff, bishops, diocesan chancellors and aboriginal people. Between December 2002 and last February, when the last diocese voted to support the accord, members of all these groups also attended most of the 30 diocesan synods or executive councils to explain the agreement and respond to questions and concerns.

The council — a national church committee whose staff support comes from General Synod — has reached a critical point in its journey. One path leads away from the national office and the church’s efforts to reach this accord. By advising its communities to boycott the ADR process, effectively opting out of the effort to make it workable, residential school abuse survivors might have to wait years for another resolution to come along.

Another path, and one which is more likely to preserve unity and good faith, would lead back to the negotiating table, working with the General Synod and the federal government for an ADR process that the council can endorse to its people.

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