Copied from The Gazette

Sunday 20 August 2000

Churches could face ruin

Canada's mainstream Protestant churches are still reeling from the $10 billion in lawsuits filed against them and the federal government in June by thousands of aboriginal Canadians who say their years in church-run residential schools were marked by abuse and a determined effort to assimilate them into white culture.

Last week, the Anglican Church of Canada scaled down its charitable works and the United Church elected a new moderator who promised to restructure the church to face potentially crippling financial losses.

The prospect of bankruptcy for the Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches is a chilling one for their parishioners, few of whom would have had any role in the mistreatment of aboriginal children. But there should be no question of trying to head off the lawsuits filed by thousands of aboriginal claimants.

Our justice system is predicated on the right of everyone to have his day in court. Here in Quebec, it remains a matter of concern that the Duplessis orphans have not been allowed to proceed with a class-action suit. The "orphans," poor or illegitimate children born in the 1940s and 1950s, were classified as mentally deficient or ill by officials who knew they were normal but nonetheless placed them in insane asylums because the federal government paid more to subsidize mental institutions.

The few hundred who are still alive want compensation for their ruined childhoods, their lack of education and training and for the physical or sexual abuse they say they suffered. Still poor and in no position to fund the individual lawsuits the government says they should, the orphans have been refused adequate compensation from either the Quebec government or the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not the example the rest of the country should follow. An estimated 7,000 individual claims have been filed against the churches and the federal government over the residential-school system that operated between the 1920s and 1970s. Former students say they were physically, sexually and emotionally abused, punished for speaking their own language, beaten for getting sick on foods they could not digest.

As the minister of Indian Affairs said in 1908, it was a question of taking the "Indian out of his primitive state, raising him up and making of him an honest citizen." To this end, aboriginal children were gathered up and taken away from their families to be raised in residential schools. No surprise then, that entire villages are unable to function properly. Thousands of aboriginal children grew up with no idea of what a family looked like or felt like.

It's perhaps true that the practice reflected the mainstream values of Canadian society at the time. It was widely perceived that aboriginal children lived in appalling conditions and needed to be "saved." Still, the cure was worse than the alleged affliction.

For that reason, it is only right that aboriginal people have turned to the legal system for redress. The court system exists so that when all other avenues are blocked, people still have somewhere to turn to have justice done.

However, it would be wrong for the federal government to sit by and watch the country's religious institutions suffer irreparable harm from the lawsuits. Whatever role the churches may have played in the colonial treatment of aboriginal people, they don't deserve destruction as a consequence.

The federal government should position itself between the churches and bankruptcy and courts should be sensitive to the fact that damage awards must be limited to what is practical and affordable.