Truth commission ‘needs to’ hear from churches

Published February 1, 2008

Daniel Ish said the residential school assessment process is a “gentler” alternative to court.

It is important for churches to “be on the record” about the role that they played in the residential schools and what they have done to facilitate healing and reconciliation with aboriginal people who were affected by that legacy, said an official of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Bob Watts, interim executive director of the commission, said that while the commission is intended to be “victim-centered,” it was also important to hear how the churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, have been affected and changed by the sad legacy of residential schools.

“Canadians need to hear from those who have witnessed the stories (of former students) about what (their) experiences have been … about what individuals and institutions are prepared to do to move forward,” he said. He cautioned, however, that reconciliation and healing does not happen overnight and would depend heavily “on the goodwill of peoples and institutions.”

Mr. Watts spoke at a gathering of aboriginal and non-aboriginal clergy and laity involved in the residential schools process, which was organized by the Anglican church to prepare them for the full implementation of the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The gathering, held at a Toronto hotel, was also intended to provide pastoral support to the clergy and laity who have either been representing the church in settlement hearings or who have been providing pastoral care to former students of residential schools.

A selection panel represented by former students, churches and government has already submitted a shortlist for the position of commission chairperson and two members to the prime minister’s office and an announcement is likely to be made soon, he said. He said that he was also “hopeful” that the apology to former students, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in a speech from the throne last October, would be issued before the commission is launched; otherwise “a lot of what we will be hearing is, ‘why hasn’t it apologized’ and then government will be forced to apologize.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is part of the revised settlement agreement, intends to provide former students and their families an opportunity to share their experiences as well as to promote public education about the 150-year legacy of the now-defunct Indian residential schools. (The Anglican church operated 35 boarding schools attended by aboriginals from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. Hundreds of former students have sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.)

Daniel Ish, chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process, meanwhile, walked participants through the assessment process, a key component of the agreement; it replaces the alternative dispute resolution process and aims to resolve claims of serious physical and sexual abuse experienced by former students.

Mr. Ish noted that the new assessment process includes more categories for claims such as income lost and student-to-student abuse.

He also stressed that although government provides the resources, the newer process is independent and is supervised by the nine provincial and territorial courts whose approval had been required by the agreement.

Mr. Ish said that although the Independent Assessment Process is a complicated procedure, it was nonetheless a “kinder, gentler” alternative to going to court. “The court is a blood sport. It is an adversarial process that is numbing even for the most thick-skinned. Older, vulnerable people won’t stand up to the court process,” he said, adding that it is also lengthier.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate (national archbishop) of the Anglican Church of Canada, attended the three-day gathering saying he was there “to listen, to learn and hopefully respond with courage,” to the “truth-telling” that will happen when the commission is implemented.

During its five-year term, the commission is expected to host seven national events and several community gatherings across the country to hear from residential school survivors, churches, and government.

Bishop Mark MacDonald, the national Anglican indigenous bishop, reflected about the legacy of colonialism in Canada, in particular the policy of assimilation through the residential schools. He said that Anglicans need to acknowledge “not that they failed, but that they carried the seeds of that horrific evil.

“We are living in the lingering effect of the doctrine of discovery and many don’t understand it,” he said.


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