Unidentified children from All Saints Indian Residential School in Lac La Ronge, Sask.
“This has been the most difficult piece of work that God has called me to do.”
The church volunteer was speaking to a room full of sympathetic colleagues, all representatives of the Anglican Church of Canada at the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) hearings on Indian residential schools.
At the very first hearing that she attended, the claimant had lashed out at her while telling a painful story of abuse at an Anglican-run school. “It was devastating to be seen as the face of evil. I was shaking and tears were streaming down my face,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘why are you angry at me? I didn’t do it.'”
At the end of the hearing, she recalled taking a long walk to regain her composure. “I had no one to talk to and no one asked how it went,” she said. After much reflection, she felt that having been at the receiving end of the rage had a purpose. “I guess the claimant needed to do that for the poison to leave her soul. For most of them, this is the first opportunity to talk about something they’ve held for 35 to 40 years. So this is a release for them.”
The volunteer shared her story during a two-day gathering organized by the church to honor the work and to hear the experiences and concerns of its representatives at the ADR hearings, which are administered by the federal government and have been held across the country since 2003. Aside from providing an opportunity for debriefing, the meeting was also intended to form a network for mutual support and learning models for caregiving. ADR chief adjudicator Ted Hughes was also in attendance to listen to concerns and to provide an update on the ADR. (The Anglican Journal attended the gathering, but agreed to withhold the identity of some participants for purposes of confidentiality.)
“It’s hard work. It’s emotionally draining and these people can’t really talk about it, so they need this,” said Ellie Johnson, director of partnerships, who represented the national church in the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. At ADR hearings, which involve claims of physical and sexual abuse by former students at native residential schools, representatives must sign a confidentiality clause.
The most common concern raised by the representatives was the issue of whether claimants and adjudicators understand the role of the church in the hearings. Representatives also questioned whether claimants are informed that their lawyers or case workers need to notify the adjudicator at least two weeks prior if they want the church represented at the hearings.
“Each visit, I was not expected and I was asked what I’m doing there,” said one representative. “We try to be sensitive enough that we don’t stay when we feel we’re not wanted.” Since 2003, the church has been represented in only about 20 per cent of these hearings, according to national church figures. Of 229 hearings in 2006, only 66 had church representation; in 128 others, claimants did not want the church present, while the remaining 13 said yes, but no representatives were available to attend. There is no data on how many have been turned away at the hearing day.
Mr. Hughes said that since the church is party to the agreement, it is “entitled” to be at the hearings. “But the church has been gracious in that if its representation is not wanted, they (representatives) don’t go,” he added.
Representatives agreed that lawyers bear the responsibility for informing the claimants about the presence of the church at these hearings. “The problem is we don’t know how the question is being asked by the lawyer or if the question is even being asked,” said one.
Just what is the church expected to do at these hearings? “The expectation is that a person will be there to hear the story and receive it on behalf of the church and then to speak,” said Ms. Johnson. What to say depends greatly on the moment, she added. “Some people are really happy to see a church person there and want a prayer. Other people are really angry and what they want is a chance to tell this church how badly treated they were and how rotten the church is. So in that case, you’re not going to say, ‘shall we have a prayer?’ You’re going to say, ‘I’m so sorry on behalf of the church that you had this awful experience.'”
What they cannot do is cross-examine claimants, she said, adding, “They’re not there to dispute whatever the person is saying. They’re not even allowed to speak when the claimant is telling the story. They’re not there to argue about the award and all that. The role is a pastoral role or a listener’s role. That’s it.”
Early on, the church made a decision that it would not send legal people to these hearings “because we’re not disputing this,” said Ms. Johnson. “The church has long ago acknowledged its complicity in this assimilation project that Canada had undergone. We acknowledged that we ran the schools and the system was bad and many people were damaged. So this is part of our attempt to apologize, to atone for our part.”
It is a role that church representatives take seriously.
“It’s incredibly important that the church is present. Healing is a very important part of work that needs to be done with our First Nations brothers and sisters,” said Rev. David Pritchard, who has attended 14 hearings in the diocese of Yukon; he deliberately does not wear a clerical collar to make his presence less intimidating. “I’m aware that the (former) primate (Michael Peers) has apologized on behalf of the church, but I will venture to guess that very few people know that. It’s also incredibly important to do that face to face.”
Being present and listening to the stories has not been easy, most participants agreed.
“These were six, seven-year-olds (when the abuse happened) and it’s horrific and unthinkable what they went through,” said Archdeacon Helena-Rose Houldcroft, who represents the church in the diocese of Qu’Appelle.
“The hardest ADRs are the ones where you know the claimant or you know their relatives. You had no knowledge that they were carrying this burden,” said Mr. Pritchard. “It’s a sad experience and I kept thinking that I wish I had known because it was a missed opportunity to do ministry.” But at the same time, he said, “it made the applicant more comfortable; they saw me as someone they knew.”
Mr. Pritchard added that as he listened to the stories, “I became much more concerned about what the abuse did to their lives, of how it robbed them of their potential. So many have lived horrendously dysfunctional lives as a result of that abuse.”
But while the role of listener can be difficult, most church representatives hasten to add that it is nothing compared to the experience of the former students who not only must relive the sad experience but who must share their stories with total strangers.
Questions were raised about what happens to the claimants after they are awarded their compensation, which often includes money for a treatment plan. Mr. Hughes acknowledged that no one monitors these plans. “It won’t be easy to monitor anyway, a lot of it is in remote areas,” he said. Some representatives noted that this was one of the weakest areas of the ADR process. Others said that they have offered pastoral care for claimants they meet at these hearings.
The experience of attending the hearings have been transformative, most representatives said. “It changes you. You see the world in a different light after that,” said Ms. Houldcroft. Another representative agreed, saying that after a particularly emotional hearing, she could not even go out for a cup of coffee with her friends. “I couldn’t stand the silliness of their lives.”
For Mr. Pritchard, “the most amazing thing has been to see such incredible inner strength in these people in spite of what they’ve been through.” He added: “Being able to articulate (their experience) and having so much self-awareness is an incredible source of hope for their continued healing.” He said that he makes it a point to “accentuate this positive.”
After a presentation on how to care for caregivers by Lt. Col. (Canon) Baxter Park, a chaplain for the Canadian Armed Forces, the representatives agreed that there should be better diocesan support for those who attend these hearings. Attendees from the diocese of Rupert’s Land said they would try to have a gathering and a chaplain for their own group of representatives. “It would be good to have someone we can call if things get to be a bit too much,” they said.
Ms. Johnson said the gathering was helpful since the church might need to recruit more representatives because the ADR is likely to receive two to three times more cases until the new settlement agreement, which has yet to be collectively approved by nine courts, is finalized. The agreement provides for a better and more streamlined Independent Assessment Process, said Ms. Johnson. Mr. Hughes said all sexual assault cases filed with the ADR would be automatically transferred to the assessment process, where the awards are higher, unless the claimant asks for an ADR hearing.