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Residential school settlement.

Ottawa, ON -- The Saskatoon Star Phoenix called it "Canada's shameful residential-school program" (Post, May 1, 2006) and that has been the public perception for the past two decades. Fuelled by loads of media hype and cheered on by "ambulance-chasing" lawyers, a picture has been painted of native children dragged from their homes by the RCMP and dropped off in boarding schools run, chiefly, by sadistic members of the clergy. There, the story goes, they were routinely abused, both physically and sexually, and deprived of their native spiritual practices and language. This is the ludicrous picture that seems to have taken hold in Canada because of the media's efforts in oversimplifying the events and scoffing at "the churches."


Canada's national policy towards aboriginals oscillated between leaving them alone or attempting to help them survive in the "white man's world," or assimilating them completely. Residential schools were instituted by the government when the policy veered to assimilation, traditional practices like buffalo hunting and fur-trading being then on the wane. The first residential schools were founded by the Christian community just to help starving aboriginals, including orphans. Initiated, but never effectively funded by federal governments, the schools were staffed by personnel from Canadian churches, the majority of them Catholics. However, it was the government that was responsible for removing and alienating the children from their families and natural environment when full assimilation was decided. The churches should have questioned the policy, but failed to do so.

After ten or more years attempting to shift the blame for this cruel and unwise policy as the responsibility of churches, the Liberals under Paul Martin finally decided in the fall of 2005 to cut through the controversy and assume financial responsibility. The present Conservative government has gone along; on May 10, 2006, Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice announced a "just and honourable" settlement of $2.2 billion compensation. About 78,000 claimants of "cultural abuse" are eligible for payments of $10,000 each, plus $3,000 for each year they spent in such a school. Cases of physical and sexual abuse, if criminally substantiated, will be adjudicated separately. In addition, persons aged 65 years or older as of May 30, 2005, are immediately eligible for $8,000 advance cheques. Former students seeking "closure" will hope to find this after their lawyers have been paid off.

In a Canadian Catholic News (CCN) interview quoted in the Catholic Register (May 21, 2006), Archbishop James Weisgerber attempted to restore some balance, pointing out that there were older "victims" as well as the students, in particular those religious nuns and priests who accepted the task and carried it out with love and concern for their students. Survivors of this group, now elderly, live mostly a life of poverty and residual shame that is none of their making.

Archbishop Weisgerber also pointed out that the 41 Catholic organizations must now come up with $80 million, a huge amount of money he called it, as their share of the compensation costs. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches will put in $40 million among them.

The Catholic groups have agreed to come up, he said, with $29 million in cash within five years, and $25 million of "inkind services" such as counselling and the highly successful reconciliation program Return to the Spirit. They must also raise another $25 million within ten years.

In a second CCN article, reporter Deborah Gyapong (Cath. Reg., May 28, 2006) interviewed Tanis Fliss, a Metis director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation for Aboriginal Policy Change in Calgary. Fliss tended to blame the "Indian industry" comprised of lawyers, bureaucrats, consultants, researchers, and others who make a living off aboriginal affairs, as having fuelled the enormous cost of the settlement which includes $80 million for legal fees. For one thing, she said in support of the remarks of the Winnipeg Archbishop, statistical data contradict the prevailing myth that the residential schools are to blame for all the ills aboriginals suffer today. In 1960, of the 40,637 native Canadians enrolled in government schools, only 9,100 attended residential schools.

Where lies the responsibility?

The primary casualty is "the image, perception and reputation of the Church." The media, naturally, have laid the blame for this "cultural genocide" at the churches' doors, disregarding the fact that the impetus to introduce this school system came from successive federal governments, the churches being the tools in its implementation. So where does the blame lie? In government ministers? In civil servants who finessed the details? In the general Canadian public who mostly approved the system?

The churches are not blameless--and this apart from the sins of some of their agents. Why did they, particularly Catholics, cooperate so extensively with the Ottawa government in what should be characterised as an abuse of human rights? If rumours of abuse surfaced, why did no one in authority ask questions? Was knowledge of Catholic social teaching so lacking in the Catholic community?

Settling the schools question from the past has been an achievement, albeit a minor one, for Ottawa's new Conservative government. An improved status of First Nations peoples within Canadian society will take much more time and effort. Poverty, clean water, education, land claims, and many other problems, will find publicity in the media. Left-wingers will play the victim card while others will deplore the lack of accountability for native leaders.
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Title Annotation:Canada
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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