A federal Canadian government decision to settle legal claims of abuse at Indian Residential Schools has been met with surprise and distress by four Canadian churches—even though the government has agreed to shoulder more responsibility.

After more than a year of discussions between churches and the federal government, the settlement proposed by the government last week was decided without church input, church leaders complain.

Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, the head of a government team negotiating with the churches, announced on October 29 that the government would pay 70 percent of the compensation destined for 1000 former students of the now-defunct church-run federal institutions.

The offer could apply to thousands more former students who allege sexual, emotional, physical, and cultural abuse at the schools, administered by four Canadian denominations on behalf of the Canadian government from 1820 to 1969. The cost is expected to be about C$1 billion (U.S.$650 million), which, according to the government-proposed settlement, would leave the churches responsible for about C$300 million (U.S.$195 million).

In at least one case, a court set financial liability for the government at only 40 per cent, leaving the church in question to bear the major burden. Although the recent government offer takes more responsibility, churches involved in the cases were worried by what they called the unilateral nature of the government's decision.

Anglican Archdeacon Jim Boyles, chair of the ecumenical team that has been negotiating with the government, said that although the government's offer was "a reasonable first step," the settlement did not address many issues, including allegations of cultural abuse and how the churches could pay their share "in an orderly manner that would not cripple their ongoing social programs."

The four churches that form the ecumenical team—the Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches—are urging the government to return to the negotiating table.

They say the solution should take into account both the ongoing needs of Aboriginal communities and the need to find alternative ways for some church organizations to meet their financial obligations.

One Anglican diocese in British Columbia will cease operation on 31 December because it can no longer finance the cost of litigation. The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) has been selling off assets to meet the national church's estimated C$100,000 (U.S.$65,000) monthly legal bills.

Churches have pointed out that money set aside for legal costs has not helped make amends to those harmed by abuse at the schools.

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Canada's biggest church, the United Church of Canada (UCC), has been "spending between two and three million dollars (US$1.3 million to US$1.95 million) yearly, mostly for legal costs—it is not going to the survivors," said Brian Thorpe, pastor and senior adviser to the UCC's Residential Schools Committee.

Thorpe said that because of the centralization of UCC's organization and because it had run fewer residential schools than other churches involved in the cases, the church was named in fewer than 10 percent of the claims. "We are fairly confident that we can continue to meet our legal obligations for the foreseeable future," Thorpe said.

In a statement issued after the government-announced settlement last week, the UCC said: "We would be encouraged by this recent statement from the Deputy Prime Minister if, in addition to addressing the immediate claims against Canada and the church, he had clearly tied the addressing of such claims to a process which would enable truth to be told and reconciliation to be sought."

Thorpe said the churches would like a public inquiry into the affair that would be shaped in part by the interested parties, including Aboriginal people.

Sister Marie Zarowny, chair of the Catholic Organizations Task Group for Indian Residential Schools, said the government's settlement proposal was not thorough enough. "Our proposal was looking at a more long-term comprehensive solution."

Discussions between the government and the ecumenical negotiating group have focused on determining the apportionment of liability between the government and churches. This has frustrated survivors whose claims have meanwhile hung in limbo.

Gray said that the government decided to take the majority of the responsibility because the views of the churches and government were still far apart and it was unfair to keep plaintiffs waiting while protracted talks went on.

Still, the churches are concerned that some of the church organizations involved will be unable financially to meet 30 per cent of the responsibility.

Meanwhile, Thorpe said, the number of plaintiffs had risen and continued to grow.

While more than 8,000 individuals have ongoing claims, it is estimated that some 105,000 people attended residential schools.

Related Elsewhere

Recent mainstream coverage includes:
Pay now for schools' abuse: NativesThe Province (November 12, 2001)

Catholics forced to pay twice for native lawsuitThe Ottawa Citizen (November 12, 2001)

Offer offends lawyersRegina Leader Post (October 31, 2001)

Canada to settle Indian abuse cases — BBC (October 30, 2001)

Feds offer settlements to Indian students — Canadian Press (October 30, 2001)

Federal government takes steps to speed up resolution of abuse claims — Canada News Wire (October 29, 2001)

Ottawa makes offer to residential school studentsThe Toronto Star (October 29, 2001)
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More articles and resources on the residential schools cases are available from Yahoo's full coverage areas on first nations and religion.

Previous Christianity Today articles about the lawsuits include:

Canadian Anglicans Nearly Broke | A judicial ruling limiting damages seems to be their last hope. (Sept. 4, 2001)

Canadian Politician Works With Churches to Resolve Abuse Crisis | Deputy prime minister meets with church leaders to resolve court cases. (June 6, 2001)

As Canadian Synod Faces Bankruptcy, Bishops Plead with Government | Anglican bishops appeal to Prime Minister for intervention (June 6, 2001)

Canada's Anglican Church Considers Possibility of Financial Ruin | Court costs, settlements surrounding abuse allegations could mean bankruptcy (Jan. 31, 2001)

Legal Costs Shut Down Canadian Diocese | Abuse claims cause the Anglican Diocese of Cariboo to disband (Oct. 19, 2000)

Lawsuits Force Anglicans to Cut Staff and Programs | Abuse allegations cause the Anglican Church of Canada to scale back church support and overseas ministries. (Aug. 25, 2000)

The Anglican Church of Canada has an extensive area of its site devoted to the residential schools controversy.

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.)

Classical Anglican Net News is a Weblog of sorts from a conservative Canadian Anglican perspective. It also has a special report area on the General Synod.

See also the ACC News page and the Anglican News Service.

The University of Saskatchewan's Native Law Center has a massive bibliography of articles and resources about the suits.