The possibility that the Anglican Church of Canada might have to pay Ottawa $95 million to be released from residential schools claims has at least one congregation up in arms.
The parish council of St. John the Evangelist, in Ottawa, fired off a letter to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, the federal cabinet and all members of Parliament, espressing “serious concern with any approach that leaves the church with a long-term debt to the federal government to pay for litigation and liabilities arising therefrom.”
In late January, there were newspaper reports indicating that the federal government and the churches were moving toward financial terms.
The reports said Ottawa might assume $2 billion in legal costs and that the Anglican church would pay about $95 million over 10 to 15 years as its share of settlements and healing projects. However, church officials said those numbers were highly speculative.
In late February, another report said Cabinet was expected to review a financial plan by the end of the month, but Peter Dimitroff, a spokesman for Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, told the Anglican Journal that timeline was not accurate. He could not say when a plan might be presented to Cabinet.
Mr. Gray has been appointed by Mr. Chretien to negotiate a solution to the crisis with representatives of the Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches.
Hundreds of natives who attended government-owned, church-run boarding schools are suing churches and the government for physical and sexual abuse and for loss of culture. Many lawsuits were filed against the government alone, which then countersued the churches. The Anglican church’s national office and several dioceses have said they are on the brink of bankruptcy due to legal costs.
Talks between Mr. Gray’s staff and church leaders are continuing.
Noting that $95 million would put the Anglican Church deep into a financial hole, Rev. Garth Bulmer, rector of St. John the Evangelist, said in an interview, “None of us is interested in putting money into a mortgage. None of us is interested in putting money into litigation. We need to tell this to the government.”
Mr. Bulmer added that his church has serious concerns with the national church’s communications efforts. “There was a fair amount of frustration at parish council that we didn’t know what was going on. The message from the national church was, ‘We’ll handle this.’ There was this concern that the strategy was not forceful enough.”
The parish’s two-page letter noted that “our church has been forthright and shown leadership in healing and reconciliation for residential schools survivors.” However, it added that assigning the church a long-term debt payable to the government would not be fair to churches, victims or taxpayers.
“The government should realize that membership in, and contributions to, the church are voluntary.
“Any joint solution on the part of the government and the church must be seen as fair and just by Anglican contributors. Any plan that does not enjoy the broad support of church membership will not succeed, even if we assume for the sake of argument that it may be accepted by a church representative in your discussions.”
The diocese of Cariboo, while still planning to wind up its affairs within the 12 months, continues to engage in talks with federal government officials in British Columbia, said Bishop James Cruickshank.
Bishop Cruickshank said the talks are “constructive” but noted that to give any more details might jeopardize them. In one suit by survivors of the Lytton residential school, participants are waiting for the judge’s decision on the amount of damages, Bishop Cruickshank said.
The diocese continues to receive operating funds through parish contributions, and to pay its apportionment to the national church, but its liquid assets have gone to pay legal fees and it can no longer afford representation in court, Bishop Cruickshank said.
The diocese is pressing the government to enter into arbitration in order to decide whether Cariboo holds church property outright or in trust.
If buildings and land are held outright, they can be sold, Bishop Cruickshank said. “We are the church with or without buildings,” he added.