Lawsuits threaten church’s future

Published April 1, 1999

A steady increase in the number of residential schools lawsuits has led to growing concerns about the church’s future financial health and its ability to carry out its work and mission.

With the church involved in more than 200 lawsuits it is obvious, the financial management and development committee told a recent Council of General Synod meeting, that litigation will affect the church’s budgeting and financing for “many years into the future.”Because none of the lawsuits filed by former residents fo residential schools against the Anglican Church have been settled, it’s unclear just how big a financial liability the “massive” claims pose. What is clear is that the legal and other related expenses are already beginning to drain church resources.

Last year, the church budgeted $20,000 to cover legal expenses in connection with lawsuits involving residential schools. It ended up spending more than $200,000.”In some ways it is dominating the work of the church,” Jim Boyles, the church’s general secretary told the COGS meeting referring to the time and money spent dealing with the lawsuits.And it could get worse. Seven former residential schools – one each in the dioceses of Cariboo, British Columbia, Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, and Huron, and two in the Diocese of Brandon – are involved in lawsuits.”Reports abound that residents of other schools will be filing claims,” Mr. Boyles said, noting that the “number of lawsuits increases daily.”

Another factor is the reported rush to file lawsuits against the federal government and churches in the wake of a new Limitations Act which came into effect in Alberta early in March. The new act gives a person 10 years to file a civil claim once it is realized that damages have been done. Other provinces allow a limit of 30 years for civil cases.

Both the Anglican Church and the federal government have formally apologized to Native Canadians for any harm they suffered during the time the residential schools were operated.A decision from the judge in the St. George’s Residential School case has yet to be delivered. A former resident of the Lytton, B.C. school says he was sexually assaulted by a former dormitory supervisor between 1965 and 1970.The church argued the federal government ran the school and should be held liable for any abuses that took place there.

The parties have agreed on a total amount of settlement but have no agreement as to what proportion to be borne by the federal government and by the church.Meanwhile, the federal government, churches and former residential school residents continue to explore possible alternative ways of settling claims than through an adversarial court system. In February, a one-day meeting in Toronto between federal government representatives and Anglican, Roman Catholic, United and Presbyterian Churches representatives was followed by three days of meetings which included Native representatives.It was the fifth of seven proposed meetings. Future meetings are scheduled for Rankin Inlet and Whitehorse.

“There were many tough, difficult things said,” said Archdeacon Boyles, “but in the end a good and productive conversation took place.”Archdeacon Boyles told the council that following these consultations, the government wants to initiate up to 12 pilot projects which would approach the issue from a community base, provide for other ways of bringing healing, and engage the participants in a “much less formal and less adversarial approach than would be the case in court.”He said that despite the claims against the General Synod and several dioceses, there are many communities and former students who have not decided to file claims, but who seek other ways of healing.Grace Delaney with the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples told the COGS meeting she supported the proposed alternative pilot projects. Condemning “ambulance chasing by lawyers,” she said some lawyers are using “dollar signs” to entice natives into filing lawsuits. Mrs. Delaney said the council has sent a letter to law societies protesting such tactics which tend to “revictimize” native people. Michael McAteer is former religion editor for the Toronto Star and a frequent contributor to the Anglican Journal.


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