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Canadian Natives Suing Churches For Child Abuse

by Mark Bourrie

on sexual abuse of Canadian Native peoples
(IPS) OTTAWA -- At least 10,000 victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse in church-run residential schools have joined class-action suits to seek compensation, the head of the country's largest Native association says.

That figure is expected to rise over the next few years to 15,000, according to some observers, who peg the total settlement bill from residential school civil actions at $670 million.

The aim of the system, which was set up in the 19th century but greatly expanded in the 1930s, was to assimilate Native children into mainstream culture. After the closures, stories of students being subjected to physical and sexual abuse in the schools began emerging. Dozens of former teachers and staff members have been tried in recent years for brutalizing children in the schools.

Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says another 20,000 former inmates of the schools are trying to negotiate quietly with the federal government, and thousands more are trying to settle with the government and churches through mediation. Coon Come said those cases deal with "criminal aspects like sexual abuse."

But many others want compensation for "loss of language, loss of culture. How do you put that into the picture in order for one to feel that their issues are addressed?" Coon Come said.

Most of the meetings between Native leaders, church officials and the government have been held in secret. They are trying to either reach an agreement or set up a dispute resolution system "that will not just leave the lawyers rich and everyone else poor," Coon Come said.

In recent testimony before a Parliamentary committee, Indian Affairs Minister Bob Nault said individual and group residential school abuse lawsuits are coming in at a rate of "20 per week."

Coon Come says the AFN has been researching the issue and is confident that 20,000 to 60,000 people not involved in court actions have unsettled issues arising from the residential school system. The former residents want compensation for the damage done to families, identities and native culture that have yet to be addressed, Coon Come said.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray, one of the country's most respected politicians, is handling negotiations for the Canadian government. The government sees the issue as a priority because leaders of Canada's three largest Christian churches (United, Roman Catholic and Anglican) say the legal actions threaten them with bankruptcy. Each of Canada's 10 provinces and three territories has its own rules for certifying class action lawsuits. However, some of the lawsuits may reach the courts next year.

Churches operated the institutions on behalf of the government
The Catholic Church in Canada as a whole is protected from bankruptcy because there is no national headquarters. Rather, it is made up of separate legal entities such as the Manitoba oblates, only some of which have had lawsuits brought against them. Protestant churches have central administrations that are financially vulnerable. However, several religious orders have already sold some of their real estate holdings to compensate victims of sexual abuse.

The churches, which have apologized for their role in the school system, operated the institutions on behalf of the government. Children were taken from their parents and forced to live in the large boarding schools, where physical and sexual abuse was common. Few students graduated and went on to college or university.

A proposal is before the federal cabinet to commit the government to paying the churches's legal costs for lawsuits, but not necessarily any final settlements. The churches would have to open their books to show that they actually do need help.

The United Church paid out $2.3 million in litigation costs last year and anticipates paying a similar amount annually for some time to come. The Anglicans paid $1.5 million last year and expect their costs to rise substantially this year. The money has gone to pay the fees of the churches's lawyers.

Many Natives are skeptical about the churches's claims that they may be forced into bankruptcy. "They have lied to us so much, I don't believe them," said Isabella Knockwood, 69, a member of the Indian Brook First Nation in Nova Scotia and the author of a book describing her experiences as a child at a Catholic residential school in Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia.

There were about 100 residential schools in Canada. An estimated 160,000 Native youngsters passed through them. Children in the schools were forbidden to use their own language or engage in their spiritual beliefs or other cultural practices.

At its Confederacy of Nations meeting last month, the AFN, which represents some 630 First Nations, set out a plan to present the government with a comprehensive settlement strategy on residential schools.

Coon Come said the government should follow the lead it set in 1988 when it gave 22,000 Japanese-Canadians who were interned during World War II between $12,000 and $20,000 each in compensation, depending on the amount of property that was confiscated from them.

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Albion Monitor February 12, 2001 (

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