Archbishop Michael Peers, seated, examines a copy of the residential schools accord signed by the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government. Looking on is Jack Stagg (left), deputy minister who led the federal government’s negotiating team, and Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the church’s chief negotiator.
The Anglican primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, and federal Public Works Minister Ralph Goodale on March 11 formally signed the agreement limiting the Anglican Church of Canada’s liability to $25 million with respect to native residential schools litigation.
Calling the agreement “a landmark,” Archbishop Peers said it marks a significant moment in the renewal of the relationship between the church and indigenous peoples, but that more work lies ahead.
Mr. Goodale, who is also the minister responsible for the Office of Indian Residentials Schools Resolution, complimented the church on its moral leadership and said the agreement insures that “all victims with valid claims will be paid.” Hundreds of native Canadians have sued the federal government and four churches, alleging various forms of abuse in a boarding school system that operated nationwide for more than a century.
However, the church’s national native council disassociated themselves from the agreement, saying they had urged the primate not to sign it. The Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) also said it would counsel native Anglicans not to co-operate with the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process, which is supposed to validate claims, apportion compensation and take the place of litigation.
Most ACIP members boycotted the signing ceremony, held at the church’s national office in Toronto. The sole ACIP member who attended, Elizabeth Beardy, did so as the wife of Archdeacon Larry Beardy, who is Cree and was a member of the Anglican team that negotiated the agreement with the federal government. Archdeacon Beardy, in an interview, called the agreement “a small step in a continuing journey of healing and reconciliation.” An Inuit bishop, Andrew Atagotaaluk of the diocese of the Arctic, also attended.
In a meeting with several ACIP members the day before the signing, Archbishop Peers told them that if he refused to sign the agreement, he would have to resign, said Lorraine Still, a member of ACIP. “He said he would have to sign it. We were disappointed, but we said we would honour his decision,” she said in an interview after the signing ceremony. Archbishop Peers declined to comment on the meeting.
ACIP’s statement, which said that when the agreement “is signed and made official by the primate on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, he will not be doing so in our name,” was received by the Journal one hour after the signing ceremony and news conference.
Archdeacon Jim Boyles, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada and its chief negotiator of the agreement, said, “I am sorry that they feel that way. I am personally committed to working with ACIP on resolving those concerns.”
The group’s concerns were not referred to during the news conference, but in his remarks before the signing, Archbishop Peers noted that, as part of the ADR process, native claimants are being asked to sign a release stating they will not make a legal claim for loss of language and culture. “While I recognize the reason for including a release … I continue to hear the voices of indigenous peoples, reminding us that those losses are deep and painful,” he told the assembled government officials, media and General Synod staff.
The ACIP statement referred to that issue, stating that the requirement is “an extinguishment of our aboriginal rights to our languages, cultures and traditions.”
Mr. Goodale noted that the government has committed $470 million for aboriginal language and cultural initiatives. Later, he told the Journal that the wording of the ADR release form is under discussion with various groups, including natives who were students in residential schools. “I don’t anticipate a major problem with this,” he said.
Archdeacon Beardy acknowledged, in an interview, that some natives feel the release may abrogate their legal rights under various historic treaty agreements and some do not want to sign away the right to pursue loss of culture claims in the courts. “It’s a debate within the aboriginal community. I hear people say there should be compensation,” he said. He added that he is working to be sure cultural support programs are developed.
ACIP’s dismay began to develop the week before at the council’s semi-annual meeting in Toronto, said Ms. Still and two other ACIP members, Eunice McMahon and Maria Jane Highway.
The ADR process categorizes abuse according to a point system and the council felt the nature of the system — giving different point values, for example, to fondling or oral sexual abuse — victimized abuse survivors again, said Ms. Highway. “It was offensive. We want changes to the ADR process,” she said. The process also calls for a great deal of written information from the victims and “a lot of our people do not have the skills to read and interpret it,” said Ms. McMahon.
ACIP talked about circle discussions, the formation of task forces and other ways to hear claims at the local level that might not re-victimize survivors, said Ms. McMahon. “We are going home and telling (natives) not to use the ADR process,” she said.