Stalled negotiations call for new strategy

Published February 1, 2002

The Church enters a new year in the saga of residential schools lawsuits and seemingly endless talks with the federal government aimed at finding some sort of solution that all parties can live with.

Readers of this newspaper and of the secular press will know that late last year, Ottawa unilaterally announced the implementation of a formula whereby the federal government would pay 70 per cent of proven claims by former residential schools students. Not much has been heard about this since. There was a predictable publicity splash with the announcement and we have been waiting, ever since, for details sketching out how this would work, who would benefit and what would be accomplished. None of the churches that had been party to these negotiations are especially happy with this turn of events.

What seems ominously obvious at this point, though, is that Ottawa, having pronounced itself ready to throw an unknowable, but presumably vast amount of money at the problem, now appears to think that the situation which has the churches in a continuing state of crisis, is water under the bridge.

It isn’t.

Canadian churches, still very much mired in this imbroglio and ever desirous of a solution that will effect healing and reconciliation, know that money alone will not resolve the problems caused by residential schools. The cash settlements must be accompanied by programs aimed at repairing the damage done. In this assumption the churches have history firmly on their side.

It is time for both the churches and the government to resolve to move this situation along. Such a resolve must be founded on the truism that in the end, neither government nor churches will get exactly what they want. Both must show a willingness to alter the positions both have entrenched themselves in and to look at the residential schools crisis with a fresh pair of eyes. Only thus can movement replace the endless rounds of talks and intractable positions adopted by both sides.

The government

There is ample history to demonstrate that throwing money at problems resolves nothing in the long term. Ottawa must approach negotiations with at least two changes of heart. It must once and for all declare the plight of native Canadians to be a priority, and be prepared to come up with social policy programs as well as money that give more substance to this than it has done in the past.

The federal government has an appalling history when it comes to such programs. For decades, succeeding governments have paid lip service to the desirability of repairing damage done to native people – damage that goes far, far beyond residential schools. They have voted money to accomplish this, and then allowed the much-vaunted programs themselves to fade through neglect. Oftentimes, opportunistic promises of programs have been followed by nothing at all, making it appear that the tragedies of our native peoples are, in the end, nothing but fodder for the political mill.

This has to stop.

Ottawa’s policy with native peoples to date is a national disgrace that not only harms the social fabric, but also puts the lie to the government’s pious statements whenever it chooses to take a stand on human rights or to chastise other jurisdictions for their treatment of ethnic groups. No one can ever truly believe that Ottawa cares one whit about racism or discrimination until it has implemented a program to begin to undo the harm done in our own land.

Secondly, Ottawa needs to understand that churches lack the resources to do what, in a perfect world, it would have them do. If Ottawa is incapable of accepting that the churches have been coming clean in divulging assets and finances, it should nonetheless face up to the fact that even if the churches were concealing millions upon millions of dollars, they would still fall far short of having the resources to contribute to the extent that Ottawa has demanded.

The churches

The churches to date have strived to maintain a high moral ground, frequently to their own detriment. They may have been right to do this, but the time has come for them to move as well, and to secure their own survival. The quality of the “resolution” to the crisis which the government announced unilaterally late last year makes even plainer what has been clear from the beginning. Effective healing and reconciliation, which is the goal of the churches, will not come at Ottawa’s instigation. Ottawa is much more likely to spend millions of dollars to simply make the residential schools problems go away than it is to find solutions. If healing and reconciliation programs are to emerge, it will be at the churches’ initiative, but only if they survive. The time has therefore come for the churches to look for solutions that include, as a top priority, their own survival as national institutions. If they do not do this and they then falter, all of the pain, and all of the ills caused by the residential schools system will linger for several more generations. This tragedy will be further compounded by the loss of all the nationally based ministries and programs that have little to do with healing and reconciliation but that are still prized by countless church-going people. A nation without mainline churches, as the government itself has acknowledged, will benefit no one.

The churches have one course of action open to them which they have attempted in the past, but in a half-hearted way. They must now devote whatever energy and resources remain to mounting an effective campaign that will once and for all push this issue into the public agenda. The vast majority of Canadians do not care about residential schools simply because they have never been told why they should care. The churches have been loath to take this initiative for fear of appearing self-serving. The time has come to abandon this reticence. Ottawa understands the power of votes. The Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches between them have enough voting members to make Ottawa listen and move.

The time has come to mobilize those votes.


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