Ecumenical group may recommend public inquiry into residential schools

By on April 1, 2005

An ecumenical working group is examining the possibility of a public inquiry into the legacy of the native residential schools in Canada.

The Anglican church, one of the churches involved, has asked the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) to comment on a draft document on the proposed public inquiry, said Archbishop (ret.) Terence Finlay, the primate’s newly-appointed special representative on residential schools.

The development comes nearly nine years after the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released a report in October 1996 recommending that an inquiry be undertaken to “investigate and document the origins and effects of residential school policies and practices respecting all aboriginal peoples,” particularly “the nature and extent of effects on subsequent generations of individuals and families, and on communities and aboriginal societies.”

The Commission, which spent two years looking into the plight of aboriginal peoples, documented long-term psychological effects and cases of abuse from residential school survivors across Canada. The Anglican church operated 26 of 80 of these native boarding schools from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. Hundreds of natives have sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.

Archbishop Finlay said a public inquiry is necessary “to provide opportunities for healing and reconciliation to take place in a positive and safe setting because if that doesn’t happen, people are not going to be able to move forward in a way in which they can contribute as worthwhile members,” of their community and their country.

Donna Bomberry, indigenous ministries co-ordinator for General Synod, the church’s national office, said that ACIP supported the Royal Commission’s call for a public inquiry in 1996 “because it was just breaking in the public’s eye.” Today, she said, ACIP will have to examine questions like, “Is the timing right for this?” and “For what purpose?” She added: “ACIP needs to explore all those reasons and come to a determination that, yes, the time is right and there is a need.”

ACIP has asked that survivors of residential schools be invited to meet with the ecumenical working group, which includes representatives from the Anglican, United, Presbyterian and the Roman Catholic churches in Canada. Rev. Andrew Wesley, a former residential school student, now assistant curate at Toronto’s Church of the Redeemer, was recently invited to the group’s meeting in March, said Ms. Bomberry.

She said that a public inquiry must involve “all the players” in the legacy of the schools – the community, the families, the government, the church and the former students. It must also “work hand in hand with other healing initiatives,” she said.

The proposal for a public inquiry is not yet official, said Archbishop Finlay, noting that many issues such as methodology, and legal ramifications still need to be worked out.

“The only thing we feel quite strongly about is that it has to happen at the local level,” said Archbishop Finlay. “If the participants are willing, they need to be recorded as part of our Canadian history and there may be a variety of different ways of doing that in terms of commemorations, memorials, gatherings and so forth.”

Another important consideration would be funding, said Ms. Bomberry. “They’ll want a share from all parties to finance it,” she said.

Ms. Bomberry noted that the Anglican church is still “struggling” with its $25 million residential schools settlement fund, the result of a 2003 agreement with the federal government to cap the church’s losses in residential schools litigation. “Unless something drastically changes about compensation for residential school experience, then the Anglican church is hard-pressed to come up with dollars for the public inquiry at the moment,” she said.

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