Who is to blame?

Published May 2, 2000

The plight of residential-school "survivors" such as Pratt raises the question of whether God’s words in the second of the Ten Commandments – "I will visit the sins of the fathers on the children for three or four generations" – are coming to pass. Must current generations of non-Natives take responsibility for backward-thinking government officials and zealous church leaders of the past, who wanted to permanently erase Native culture and tradition? Few Canadians alive today have any direct ties to the federal government’s original policy of assimilation, which required Indian children to attend residential schools, and condemned Native culture by outlawing such gatherings as potlatches and sweat lodges.

[pullquote]But many non-Natives are members of one of the four churches – Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist (now represented by the United Church) – that ran approximately 130 Indian residential schools that dotted the national map from Alert Bay on Vancouver Island to Shubenacadie, N.S., which some 105,000 children attended. Anglicans were involved in 28 schools – 26 through the church’s missionary society, two run by the independent New England Company based in London, England. The first Anglican school opened in 1820. The last one closed in 1971. In all, about 35,000 students are thought to have attended Anglican schools; and some of the individuals who stand accused of physically and emotionally abusing Native children are still alive, and named in the growing number of lawsuits.

For the last few years, former attendees of residential schools have been coming forward in droves, claiming they were physically, sexually and mentally abused while students at these mostly remote schools that operated in Canada for more than a century. Thousands have retained lawyers and turned Canada’s justice system into the backdrop for the ultimate national story of crime and punishment. Their financial claims total billions of dollars, and may reach tens of billions.

As of mid-April 2000, the Government of Canada was being sued by an estimated 7,000 survivors of residential schools, with the Anglican Church named as a co-defendant in 359 cases involving about 1,600 plaintiffs. Various dioceses within the Anglican Church of Canada, and possibly the national General Synod itself, could go bankrupt as a result of the lawsuits. The General Synod, the national church body that created and is responsible for the missionary society, is already facing claims of more than $2 billion, but has assets of only about $10 million.

Several dioceses, the regional divisions of the church, face similar problems. "If just 20 of the cases the church faces go the way the first one did, we will be bankrupt, there’s no doubt about it," says Bishop Duncan Wallace of Saskatchewan’s Diocese of Qu’Appelle, that encompasses Regina and the Gordon Reserve. Wallace is referring to a 1999 Supreme Court of British Columbia decision in which a judge found the Anglican Church and the federal government liable (60 and 40 per cent, respectively) for the abuse that dormitory supervisor Derek Clarke inflicted on Floyd Mowatt in the early 1970s, while Mowatt was a student at St. George’s Indian Residential School near Lytton, B.C. The amount was settled before the judge’s final decision. Although the amount is confidential, no one has challenged the Journal’s reported figure of about $200,000.

The collective dollar amounts from such cases are huge, but the hurt is even greater. This piece of Canada’s past has scarred not only former students, but also former staff, many of whom feel their reputations have been damaged, even though they personally did not abuse students. And it has pitted Native Anglicans, the Anglican Church of Canada and the federal government against one another in a series of legal battles that are proving costly, and even deadly; some former students are resolved to suffer the consequences of going public, but others who have not launched lawsuits, but were abused, have been so shocked to learn that their secrets will be revealed in a public forum that they have taken their own lives rather than face the scrutiny and shame of appearing as witnesses at trials.


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