APRIL 4, 2002
Differentiating Among Tragedies
-- Arthur E. Gans
In a recent issue of Sightings ("Suffer the Children," Sightings, 18 February 2002), Dr. Martin Marty drew a comparison between the Archdiocese of Boston's pedophilia scandal and residential schools cases involving the Anglican Church of Canada. These two situations, as well as the responses to them, are actually quite different, and should be treated as such.
A brief note of explanation is in order. Beginning in the 19th century, before confederation, the Government of Canada had a policy of putting First Nation children into residential schools. These schools were run by a number of churches, largely because the churches were the only groups that were prepared to do so. The curriculum of the schools was designed to train the First Nations children to fit into the wider society of Canada. The methods used included forbidding the use of First Nations languages in favor of the use of the major languages of Canada: English and French, the use of corporal punishment -- something that most First Nations cultures did not use on their children -- and training the children in occupations, particularly farming and agriculture, that would allow them to fit into the dominant society. Moreover, the children were forcibly removed from their homes by the federal police force to be taken to these schools. These and other condemnable government policies led to charges of cultural abuse and genocide.
The focus of most cases brought by First Nations plaintiffs against the government and churches has been physical abuse, though there were certainly situations of sexual abuse. For much of the period during which the schools operated, there were tremendous differences between First Nations practices and European practices in the raising of children. Many Anglican Church schools were run by men and women who had themselves been educated in residential schools (English public schools or their Canadian copies) where discipline was maintained by the use of corporal punishment. They often turned to corporal punishment in their correction of the First Nations children.
The Anglican Church withdrew from running schools in 1969. It formally apologized for its participation in the residential schools in 1993. It actively pursued healing and reconciliation a number of years before that. The Anglican Church of Canada has a long tradition of First Nations leadership within the church, a tradition evident in the elections of several bishops of First Nations heritage, including at least one diocesan bishop.
Four churches in Canada are currently involved in legal actions directed against these schools: the Roman Catholic Church through several of its orders, the Anglican Church in several of its dioceses, the United Church, and the Presbyterian Church. All of these churches have been involved in suits brought by individuals and groups. Many of the suits were brought initially against the federal government, but its legal counsels have "third-partied" the churches in almost every case. At the present time, the Anglican Church and its several dioceses are involved in nearly 1000 suits, forty percent of which were initially filed against the federal government, which then "third-partied" the General Synod and the respective dioceses. As a result of this federal policy, churches have had to spend much more on legal defense and less on direct compensation ofthe injured parties and communities.
Recently the Federal Government admitted its primary responsibility for the abuses that occurred in the residential schools and put forward the "70-30 plan," saying that they would pay for seventy percent of damages assessed. However, in the one case that has been decided, which was not covered by this agreement, the costs of the case have forced the Diocese of Cariboo into bankruptcy. The national Anglican Church is appealing this case, which did involve sexual abuse. The case was decided on the basis of "vicarious liability," that is, that the church should have known before it did, that the individual was involved. That the individual was convicted in criminal court, and that church officials provided evidence that led to that conviction did not protect the Church from liability.
Though the Canadian government's policies and the Anglican Church's involvement in their implementation both had tragic consequences, both groups have been working publicly and vigorously to bring about healing and reconciliation. One thing that can be said about the cases involving First Nations plaintiffs and the Anglican Church of Canada is that there has been very little secrecy and no attempt to cover-up what has happened. Indeed, quite the opposite has been true from the beginnings of the first cases.
-- The Reverend Arthur Gans is a retired priest of the Diocese of Kootenay who has graduate training in the areas of history and ethics. For additional information concerning this issue in Canada, visit the web-site of the Anglican Church of Canada, and look under "residential schools."