Canada's churches face past sins

Four large Canadian churches may face bankruptcy as 6,400 natives sue over treatment in assimilation schools.

Charles Baxter's family were once Cree trappers, but in 1958, he became the prey. The local Indian agent and Mountie hunted him down. "They went out to the trapping lines to find me," he says.

And so began his eight years of alleged abuse at an Anglican boarding school. His hands were slapped so many times that even now, he often recoils from his own wife's touch. Tears fill his eyes as he recounts his story. "I've been holding it for 41 years. It's a big load that I carry."

Mr. Baxter is now part of a C$12 billion (US$8 billion) class-action lawsuit against the Canadian government and four of the country's major religious groups. No one denies that the policy of assimilating aboriginal children into white church-run, federally funded schools was a failure. The schools, which operated until recent years, were rife with physical and sexual abuse, and eroded native language and traditions.

But mounting legal fees are pushing churches to the brink of bankruptcy. The Anglican Church, Canada's third largest with 2.2 million members, faces 35O lawsuits. It operated 37 aboriginal schools, the last one closed in 1969. Earlier this month it announced staff layoffs, as its legal bills have reportedly topped US$1.6 million.

Around the world, several countries are struggling to one degree or another to come to terms with dark chapters in their histories: African slavery in the United States, Nazism in Germany. South Africa has endured the wrenching but ultimately cathartic ordeal of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And earlier this year a quarter-million Australians marched to demonstrate in favor of reconciliation with their country's Aborigines - who experienced similar assimilation programs.

In Canada, there is as yet no such broad public movement. In fact, most of the attention given to this issue is focused on the prospect that pillars of this country's religious establishment now face bankruptcy.

Of approximately 105,000 people who went through the schools during their nearly 100-year history, some 6,400 have filed lawsuits against the government and the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Presbyterian churches, plus the United Churches of Canada. The courts have so far ruled that both the government and churches share responsibility. A handful of cases have come to trial; only two have been settled.

Many voices, including government officials, are calling for getting the cases out of the courts and into some alternative forum.

John Milloy, historian at Trent University in Peterborough, Ont., says, "This should be a wake-up call in terms of a national discussion" of reconciliation of First Nations and European Canadians, "but that conversation just doesn't seem to want to happen."

University of Saskatchewan historian J.R. Miller says, "I increasingly think the Canadian population is in a state of denial."

The federal government seems no more energized on the issue than is the public at large.

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Manitoba, a Roman Catholic missionary order that operated schools in the western provinces, offered Ottawa a deal: Oblates' assets in exchange for government assumption of liability and protection against future lawsuits associated with the schools scandal. Ottawa isn't responding, however. "We made the offer in February, and nothing's happened since," says Rhal Teffaine in Winnipeg, the Oblates' lawyer. "I haven't received a definitive reply."

Ottawa has been likewise unresponsive to a similar offer from the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.

One Anglican official says that if the church does go bankrupt, "we won't have a place at the table" for negotiating long-term healing solutions to the issue.

"It's an offer - it's something we will look at," says Lynne Boyer, a spokeswoman at the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, of the Oblates' proposal.

Ms. Boyer, however, stresses the responsibility of the churches for wrongdoing at the schools: "The reality is that these schools were run by the churches."

For the group of natives sitting in a circle at their community center, telling their stories to a visitor, the concern is that fingerpointing and hairsplitting are delaying tactics, intended to stall financial settlement until no survivors are left.

"I feel I live the life of a hostage," says Gilbert Ferris, who attended a residential school in the early '40s. "Instead of getting healed, I feel the knife is deeper into my back."

The most concrete action Ottawa has taken toward redress has been a veritable apple of discord within aboriginal communities. A "healing and reconciliation fund" of $350 million (US$235 million) was created in 1998, of which $66 million has already "flowed into the communities," said Shaun Tupper, at the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, in a recent radio interview.

But some victims dismissed the fund as "just another diversion tactic, to get people fighting among themselves." In a sort of bureaucratization of tragedy, the fund has become bogged down in concerns about the format of their proposals and technicalities of mileage reimbursement.

Like many natives, Baxter criticizes Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for accepting too quickly an "apology that wasn't." Says Baxter, "He had no right to do that."

Mr. Fontaine was widely seen as too accommodating toward Ottawa, and that perception led to his defeat at the hands of Matthew Coon Come, seen as likely to be much more assertive of native rights. But his real political clout is limited.

Meanwhile, the right-wing Canadian Alliance has an energizing new leader and looks more credible as an alternative to Jean Chrtien's Liberal government. And the Alliance is not any bigger on dealmaking with Canadian natives than the GOP is big on affirmative action in the United States.

The policy of residential schooling for First Nations has been so widely repudiated that it is hard for many Canadians to realize not only that many church people had noble motives for supporting it, but that progressive elements of society as a whole supported "Christianizing the heathen."

"In those days there were those who thought residential schools were a good idea - and those who thought they were too good for the Indians," says a church official. "[Canadians] can't escape the heritage of one part of the national enterprise which had as its goal the obliteration of native culture."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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