The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) faces the possibility of bankruptcy, according to a discussion paper being circulated among the church's leaders. The paper, Planning for the Future, states that the national church could face bankruptcy in the light of major court costs and settlements with former students, many of them indigenous Canadians, who allege they were mistreated or abused at residential schools run by the church. Several hundred cases across Canada are at various stages of legal action.
Last year Justice Janice Dillon in the Supreme Court in British Columbia found the ACC general synod and the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo jointly liable to pay 60 percent of an undisclosed amount of damages to a student who was sexually abused 30 years ago at St George's Indian Residential School in Lytton, B.C. The federal government is liable for 40 percent of the damages. That ruling is now having deep ramifications for other cases.
Archdeacon Jim Boyles, the church's general secretary, told Ecumenical News International (ENI): "We have filed notice of an appeal [in the British Columbia case] and are preparing our brief for that. We expect that it might be ready in late spring or early summer. We are not sure when it will be heard."
In the Lytton school situation there are seven other claims that are moving forward in the courts," the archdeacon said. "They may be set for trial in the spring."
He added: "There are a number [of cases] before the courts in southern Saskatchewan that may reach trial by late spring or perhaps next fall. We have about over 300 cases altogether and they involve about 1200 plaintiffs."
Most of the cases have been brought by individuals. But Archdeacon Boyles added: "In some cases there are groups. The largest one concerns the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, where there is a group of about 800 that have come together and are working toward certification as a class [legal action by a group]."
Two years ago the Canadian press reported that the government and the churches involved in the residential schools program could have to pay out up to one billion Canadian dollars (US$700 million).
The discussion document is presently being circulated among committees of the ACC's general synod and will be discussed at a meeting in May of the church's general council, the executive body of the church's general synod.
"The first question to the council is: 'Do they need to make a decision or will the situation allow us to continue until our full general synod meets in July 2001?' Preferably the parent body [general synod] should be the one to make major decisions. However, if the progress in terms of settlements and legal costs and so forth by May looks rather onerous, the council may have to make some interim decisions," the archdeacon said.
According to the church's national newspaper, the Anglican Journal, the discussion paper outlines various options for the future of national work, including eliminating or decentralizing most of its national mission, "leaving a bare-bones structure."
Questioned by ENI, Archdeacon Boyles said that bankruptcy "is a possibility, but it is not our preferred option. We are going to do all we can to avoid that, and continue on as the general synod as long as we are able."
He told the Anglican Journal that bankruptcy would require a new structure. "General synod was formed by the dioceses and the ecclesiastical provinces coming together. They could come together again and start another general synod. It could look quite similar or it could be quite different."
We've been in negotiation with the [federal government's] Department of Indian Affairs and Department of Justice around participation in alternative dispute-resolution processes," he told ENI. "The government has invited us to be part of some of those processes."
The federal government had been approached about limiting the church's financial liability, Archdeacon Boyles said. "We have said that our assets are so limited that it would be very difficult for us to participate unless there were a cap on our liability going into one of those [processes]. We are aware that our assets come nowhere near the amounts that are claimed from the church."
Three other churches were involved in the government's residential school program—the United Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church of Canada and the Roman Catholic Church—and also face litigation. About 130 residential schools were financed by the government and run by churches for almost a century. The schools were closed by the 1960s.
"We [the churches] meet together regularly, and have been negotiating with the government together," Boyles said. "The four churches sit down with representatives of the two [government] departments."
Asked by ENI what effect the problem was having on the ACC's present financial position, Archdeacon Boyles said: "For 2000 we've continued in our normal way of budgeting—funding all the national programs of the church. We are not sure about 2001, but it may be possible to continue through the next year as well."
That depends primarily on the extent of the legal costs and settlement costs, and the continuing contributions from Anglicans and from the 30 dioceses across the country.
Church members are being informed of the situation. "Our attempt at the moment is to inform Anglicans in many ways, through the media, but also through internal publications and the networks that we have—sharing the information and facts with them," Archdeacon Boyles said. "Perhaps later we will enlist them in developing a strategy with which we can approach the government to put forward our case and concerns."
"We continue in the litigation to defend our cases, but our primary goal as a general synod is in the area of healing and reconciliation for those who have been damaged by the residential schools," Archdeacon Boyles told ENI. "Our second goal is that of survival so that we can be around to contribute as we can to the healing and reconciliation."Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.
For continuing coverage of this issue, see the
Anglican Journal, the ACC's monthly newspaper (its
October 1999 issue provides especially good background information on the abuse allegations and their implications for the church.) See also the
ACC News page and the
Anglican News Service.
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