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Abuse at Native residential schools in Canada

Legal Aspects

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Precisely which groups are legally responsible?

The four Christian denominations involved with residential schools have different internal organizations. In theory: 

bulletRoman Catholic Church: (about 60% of the schools) The Roman Catholic Church does not exist as a legal entity; only its dioceses do. Again, each diocese is liable for abuse at its schools. However, most of the residential schools were operated by the Oblates and similar church orders. The latter were separately incorporated, and would be responsible for any liabilities at their schools.
bulletAnglican Church of Canada: Various Anglican dioceses administered 26 residential schools from 1920 to 1969. 1 Each Anglican diocese "is separately incorporated and is not legally responsible for the obligations of any other diocese.2 Thus, the individual diocese is solely responsible for any abuse at schools that it operated.
bullet United Church of Canada: The schools were mainly operated by the Board of Home Missions and the Women's Missionary Society. These are integral parts of a single incorporated legal entity, The United Church of Canada, which is legally liable for abuse at its schools.
bullet Presbyterian Church in Canada: From a legal standpoint, the schools were run by offices which were part of the national church body.

Thus, in theory, individual Anglican and Catholic dioceses, and individual Catholic orders are in the most exposed financial situation. Even a small number of abuse claims could force each of them in to bankruptcy, unless the government steps in with funding.

However, in practice, the federal government has been involving The General Synod of the Anglican Church by third party action. By 2001-MAR, this had happened in 386 cases. Similarly, the government has been involving Roman Catholic dioceses in abuse trials, even though residential schools in their area were operated by separately incorporated Orders within the church. 

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Both the government and the above mentioned religious institutions have been hit by class-action lawsuits totaling over a billion dollars (CDN) alleging various forms of abuse in church-run native residential schools. A total of about 7,000 survivors of these schools are currently suing the federal government and the religious organizations directly responsible for their inhumane treatment. The eventual number of plaintiffs will probably exceed 10,000. In addition to allegations of personal abuse, many of of the claims are based on the children's separation from their family of origin, and their loss of aboriginal culture. These latter two types claims are new to the courts and have not been tested.

In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples recommended that a public inquiry be made into residential schools. This was ignored by the government. Matthew Coon Come, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, has called for a Canadian version of the Apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission that facilitated healing in South Africa. 3 Some Native victims of abuse would be satisfied by an apology from their perpetrator(s) through the offices of such a Commission. Others who are too frail in mind or body to tackle a court battle might welcome it as well.

Lawsuits are generally slow moving, exhausting for the plaintiffs, and expensive. Lawyers seem to be the main benefactors in many cases. During 1998 and 1999, the federal government hosted a series of discussions to seek alternatives to litigation. Present were some First Nation survivors, civil servants, and church representatives. As a result of this dialog, twelve pilot projects in alternative dispute resolution were agreed to. These programs were limited in their scope and in the number of survivors who could participate." 3

References used:

  1. "Judge throws out lawsuits against Anglican Church seeking redress for abuse," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, 2002-OCT-25, Page A15.
  2. "Residential Schools Update: Financial Viability: Different Church Structures - Different Messages," United Church of Canada, 2000-MAY-5, at: http://www.uccan.org/airs/000505.htm
  3. "The United Church of Canada: Residential Schools: Questions and Answers," at: http://www.uccan.org/airs/qa.htm 

Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-JUN-03
Latest update: 2009-MAR-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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