Negotiations between Canadian churches and the federal government on native residential schools liability issues inched forward in mid-September after nearly breaking down in August.
Anglican Archdeacon Jim Boyles, general secretary of General Synod and chair of the ecumenical group representing the churches, declined to give specifics about the latest meeting, Sept. 12, in Ottawa with federal negotiator Jack Stagg, but said, “the talks continue.”
When asked if the session had made progress, Mr. Stagg’s spokesperson, Cindy Clegg, responded, “Yes, we believe so,” but said she could not comment further.
Sr. Marie Zarowny and Brian Thorpe, representing, respectively, the Roman Catholic and United churches, also declined to comment on the content of the day-long meeting, but Mr. Thorpe said, “we’re continuing and we’re going to be meeting again later this month.”
It was a markedly different tone from mid-August, when the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United church representatives issued a statement saying that “there has been no significant progress in these discussions.” The statement added that, “It seems that the mandate of the officials negotiating on behalf of the Government of Canada is not broad enough to address the real problems in the way of an agreement. We will be reflecting on these matters and planning our next steps.”
When asked about the churches’ statement, Ms. Clegg was more sanguine. “There are some really substantial issues on the table. The nature of negotiations is to have ups and downs,” she commented.
Archdeacon Boyles, in a memo to Anglican bishops and the Council of General Synod, asked Anglicans again to write to Members of Parliament and local newspapers, expressing their views on the situation. Anglicans took part in a letter-writing campaign earlier this year.
Shortly before the September meeting, the government released an opinion poll taken last March that said most respondents believe the churches and government bear a 50/50 share of responsibility for the schools.
The poll, based on a survey of 1,512 Canadians, indicated that “there is not a lot of sympathy for the churches paying less than their full legal share,” according to the summary published by Earnscliffe Research and Communications and Pollara Research, the polling firms.
“Divesting assets is the most widely accepted option for how the churches could cope with financial demands. Bankruptcy was found to be unacceptable by a majority of Canadians,” the summary says. It also noted that “there is skepticism, less so among frequent churchgoers, that the claims threaten the churches’ viability.” Among Anglican church members, 40 per cent said they do not believe the Anglican church’s claim of financial difficulty. Fifty-six per cent said they did believe it while 4 per cent said they did not know.
In his memo, Archdeacon Boyles expressed anger with the release of the survey. “Mr. (Herb) Gray, the deputy prime minister, has stated ? that he does not want to conduct the residential schools negotiations through the newspapers. In our view, the release of the polling results on the eve of the fourth scheduled meeting ? represents a reprehensible breach of this understanding,” he wrote.
In an interview, Mr. Boyles also noted that, “there is some mythology that the church is a very rich institution.” Selling assets, he said “means reducing programs and ministries.”
Hundreds of natives are suing the federal government and various entities of the four churches, claiming damages for abuse suffered in a national “Indian residential school” system that existed from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1970s.
According to tentative government estimates, total liability could reach $2 billion and several churches, including the Anglican national office and several dioceses, have said they are headed toward bankruptcy from the costs of legal defense and from settlements.
While church entities are named directly in some lawsuits, churches have been brought into other cases as “third parties” by federal lawyers.
Ottawa ran the school system, but contracted with the churches to manage and staff various schools. In some cases, sexual and physical abuse has been proven, abusers have been convicted and damages awarded.
In the negotiations with the federal government, the churches want the government to stop “third-partying” them in lawsuits and assume their liability. The churches have said they believe the government is primarily responsible for the residential school system.
The churches would like their many programs aimed at healing and reconciliation with natives to count as part of a settlement in lieu of cash, said Tony Whittingham, spokesman for the Anglican church.
The Anglican church has said it is spending about $5 million per year on aboriginal communities and native healing programs nationwide.
The federal government has set up a $350 million fund for healing programs.