Fledgling survivors’ group to lobby for tribunal

By on October 1, 2000

The churches may have a powerful new ally in the form of a coalescing group of residential school survivors who plan to lobby the federal government to create a tribunal to deal with residential schools grievances.

Alvin Tolley, an Algonquin who attended Roman Catholic-run residential schools in Ontario, has started a group he calls the Organization of United Reborn Survivors.

Under the guidance of an elder on his Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Reserve in Maniwaki, Que., Mr. Tolley says he has forgiven the churches for their role in the residential school system.

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But he remains furious with the federal government and is critical of its tactics in counter-suing the churches in lawsuits in which it is named.

He is also dismissive of the government’s attempts at alternative dispute resolution, calling it a stalling tactic designed to minimize its own liabilities.

The 57-year-old former commercial pilot has written a paper, Federal Rules of Engagement: The Government’s War Against Survivors and the Churches. In it, he suggests Native survivors of residential schools ought to come together in a new, cross-country organization. He also believes they should ally themselves with the churches to demand the federal government set up an independent tribunal.

“A partnership of this kind would have a positive impact on public opinion by focusing blame where it belongs, namely on the federal government,” he wrote.

Mr. Tolley is distributing his paper to other survivors of residential schools and to churches. (The paper can be located on the Internet at http://kza.qc.ca/Pages/POinterest/interest.htm.)

Mr. Tolley has been speaking at various gatherings of Natives and estimates the strength of OURS at between 300 and 500 people. Many Natives initially disagree with his idea to form an alliance with churches but change their minds after they have read his paper, he said.

Mr. Tolley said he too was angry with the churches for years but was persuaded by an elder that he needed to forgive. When he became a diabetic two years ago, he was forced to stop working as a commercial pilot, leaving him time to dig into the history of the residential schools.

As he researched, he said he began to discover “the government has the sole responsibility for setting up residential schools.”

Mr. Tolley envisions a tribunal in which survivors would determine the process. It would not be bound by the same rules of evidence and protocols as a court and could consider Canadian as well as aboriginal and international law.

Ellie Johnson, director of the Anglican Church’s Partnerships program and indigenous justice co-ordinator, Chris Hiller, met with Mr. Tolley in Ottawa in July, along with representatives from the United Church of Canada.

“When I read his paper, I was quite excited about (the idea of a tribunal),” Dr. Johnson said. The churches’ ecumenical working group on residential schools had come up with a similar idea, along the lines of a truth and reconciliation commission run by an independent outside group, she said.

“I thought the idea would go further if it came from an aboriginal group, not the churches,” she said.

Dr. Johnson stresses that the idea for an alliance is Mr. Tolley’s, not the churches. She said she told him she supported his idea for a national group of survivors but felt any involvement up front by the churches could hinder it from attracting members.

Dr. Johnson suggested he start his group first then get the members’ perspective on whether they wished any visible church support.

In other residential school news, the Anglican church was joined by the United, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches in publicly apologizing in St. John’s for their treatment of Native peoples in Newfoundland and Labrador over the past 500 years. One Native group complained it wasn’t clear what the churches were apologizing for.

Bishop Donald Harvey of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador said he was moved by the service and hopes Natives and non-Natives can “start working together into a future with mutual co-operation and respect for each other.”

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