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There is a lot of denial, people thinking this is a bad dream, Bishop Wallace said of the responses of priests and parishioners to the claims. I told a priest recently, `When your rectory gets sold out from underneath you and you are living in the street, maybe you will understand this is for real.'
Lawsuits on School Abuse May Bankrupt Canada Churches
November 2, 2000
By JAMES BROOKE
REGINA, Saskatchewan Lawsuits filed by thousands of former Indian boarding school students in Canada, claiming sexual, physical and "cultural" abuse, threaten to swamp the financial resources of four mainstream Christian churches that ran the schools until 1970.
"I simply see us going broke," Duncan D. Wallace, the Anglican bishop of Qu'Appelle, which encompasses Regina, said of his diocese. With resignation, he added, "When you get down to it, all we need is a bottle of wine, a book and a table, and we are in business."
Settlements could snowball into billions of dollars, devastating the financial resources of Canada's four old-line Christian churches: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian and United Church. By the end of next year, the Canadian government forecasts, 16,000 Indians will have entered some form of claim; that number is equal to 17 percent of the living alumni of the boarding schools.
Already there are four class-action suits against the churches and the government, which had the churches run schools in distant communities under contract.
Indian plaintiffs have won all five boarding school abuse trials held in the last two years two in Saskatchewan and three in British Columbia. In the Saskatchewan cases, both involving sex abuse, and both filed against the government, one plaintiff won $54,000 and the other $114,000. In the British Columbia cases, lawyers for the government and the churches negotiated secrecy over damage awards.
Auditors for the Anglican Church of Canada predict that legal fees alone will push the church into bankruptcy next year.
"There is a lot of denial, people thinking this is a bad dream," Bishop Wallace said of the responses of priests and parishioners to the claims. "I told a priest recently, `When your rectory gets sold out from underneath you and you are living in the street, maybe you will understand this is for real.' "
Parishioners have proposed selling the oldest church in Alberta to raise $2 million for legal costs and settlements faced by the United Church of Canada. In Manitoba, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order, want to hand over to the federal government virtually all their property in the province in return for Ottawa's assuming liability for about 2,000 claims against the order. The Oblates fear that legal bills will eat up their assets before any money can flow to legitimate claimants.
In British Columbia, some members of the now bankrupt Anglican diocese of Cariboo, embittered with the government, propose complying with a government order to inventory church art for auction by sending their Sunday school drawings to Ottawa.
Behind the suits is the real pain of many Canadian Indians who were rounded up and forced into the schools.
In the late 19th century, Canada's government turned to established churches to carry out federal obligations to educate the new nation's Indians. With few civil servants willing to work in remote areas, churches agreed to run a network of aboriginal boarding schools, which numbered about 100 at its peak.
In a forced assimilation popular in North America a century ago, children as young as 5 were taken from their families to faraway boarding schools where their hair was cropped short, they were often dressed in uniforms and they were forbidden to speak their native languages or learn their traditional arts, religion and dances.
"How do you get 6-year-olds who only speak Sioux, who only speak Lakota, who only speak Cree to speak English?" asked Anthony Merchant, head of a group here that represents about 4,000 claimants. "You use Gestapo-type tactics to punish this 6-year-old. Punishment becomes increasingly barbaric, sadistic."
Mr. Merchant, who said there were no statutes of limitations for sex abuse cases, said that about one- third of his clients charged such abuse. With the pace of trials picking up, he estimated that his firm would handle half of the roughly 70 cases scheduled for trial next year.
"You couldn't say one word or you would get slapped," said Jerry Shepherd, a plaintiff from the White Bear Nation, recounting in an interview his days at Gordon School, about 65 miles north of here, in the mid-1960's.
With parents often forbidden to visit, boarding schools sometimes became places where pedophiles freely preyed on defenseless, disoriented children, Indians say.
"The sexual perverts went all over the West," Mr. Merchant said. "We have some that were in six or seven schools."
School defenders say that for aboriginal Canadians to survive in the modern era, it was essential for them to learn English, to adopt Western- style dress and to learn vocational skills.
Anger over the schools surfaced in suspicious fires that decimated the buildings, most recently an arson attack last summer that destroyed a boarded-up building that once housed the Edmonton Indian Residential School in Alberta.
Some Indians remember that their abusers were fellow Indians. Edmund Gordon, 39, a former student at the Gordon School, recalls that the supervisor who gave him marijuana and then tried to rape him was "an aboriginal, he taught powwow." Mr. Gordon, a claimant who now runs a residence for H.I.V.-positive Indians here, said that he blamed the supply of free drugs and alcohol for derailing his boyhood goals of becoming a policeman or professional hockey player.
According to "Sins of the Fathers," a report on the schools published by The Anglican Journal, the church's monthly newspaper, last May, eight Indian men committed suicide after they were subpoenaed to testify about their sexual abuse at the boarding school in the Cariboo diocese.
"When they got handed a piece of paper, they knew their secret was out," Fred Sampson, a former student of St. George's Indian Residential School, said about friends called to testify in an abuse suit that went to trial last year. "They thought, `Everybody's going to know that I let this guy do it to me for candy.' "
Robert Desjarlais, 53, a Saskatchewan Indian, walked 1,500 miles from here to Ottawa last summer, demanding educational programs to restore lost languages. Walking the last 100 miles barefoot, Mr. Desjarlais said that in the mid-1950's he was regularly abused by a Catholic priest at a church school.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which once was charged with enforcing mandatory school laws for Indians, started a task force in 1995 to investigate allegations of boarding school abuse. Since then, the Mounties have received 3,400 complaints against 170 suspects. So far, only five people have been charged, with crimes like sexual abuse, a low tally that the police attribute to faulty memories and deaths of teachers.
Seeking redress through civil suits, lawyers believe that the British Columbia judge in the Cariboo case set a national precedent when she assigned a 60 percent share of liability to the Anglican Church and 40 percent to the federal government.
The churches protest that they ended their involvement in the schools around 1970, though the government took them over and did not close the last one for two more decades. Anglicans say their primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, made a full apology to Indians for abuses at the schools in 1993, five years before Canada's government made a similar apology.
Faced with selling churches, rectories, women's shelters and soup kitchens, churches say that settlements should be mediated outside the courts, that the federal government should pay the greatest part of the claims, and that a fact-finding panel similar to South Africa's post- apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be set up.
Blurring battle lines, Canada's Anglican Church today has four aboriginal bishops and 130 aboriginal priests. Some tribal leaders have banned from their reserves lawyers working on contingency fees seeking claimants.
Rejecting charges of "cultural genocide," John Clarke, the Anglican bishop of Athabasca in northern Alberta, told The Anglican Journal, "There's a whole pile of upper-middle-class guilt here that's running the show, not much common sense."
Arguing that the most effective therapy is counseling, apologies and moderate settlements, church leaders say that additional steps like teaching lost languages could be paid out of a $240 million "healing fund" the federal government set up in 1998.
Most suits did not originally name the churches. Instead, Ottawa drew the churches into the legal wrangles by naming them as third-party defendants. The Anglican Church is urging parishioners to write Prime Minister Jean Chr tien using lines like, "Your Department of Justice is literally driving my church into bankruptcy."
Compounding bureaucratic caution, clouds were recently cast over one of Canada's largest school abuse settlements, in Nova Scotia. A provincial justice department report in September on the $25 million that the province paid in the late 1990's to 1,237 reported victims at a boys' reform school concluded that, in retrospect, "most of the allegations are either unsustainable or implausible."
With a national election scheduled for Nov. 27, some Christian commentators are urging people to vote against Mr. Chr tien's Liberal Party and for the Canadian Alliance, a conservative party led by Stockwell Day.
"Jean Chr tien and the Liberals have basically announced it's open season on our nation's mainstream churches," Paul Jackson, a columnist, wrote in The Calgary Sun.
Mr. Chr tien recently asked Herb Gray, Canada's deputy prime minister, to find a negotiated solution. Without setting a timetable, Mr. Gray said he sought a solution "that is fair to all, that primarily does not involve litigation."
But with no solution near, church leaders nervously await a court test here in December of a new legal concept: "cultural abuse," or loss of language, oral traditions and spiritual beliefs.
© CHAKRA 10-November-2000
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