Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Catholic Chuch has a moral obligation in residential school case

Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Phil Fontaine, is calling on the federal government to fill the big hole left by the Catholic Church in providing compensation to survivors of Indian residential schools, calling it the government's "moral duty" to do so. What about the Catholic Church's moral duty?
As a quick recap, the residential schools system, funded by the Canadian government and administered largely by the Catholic Church (and abetted to a lesser extend by the Anglican Church and even the usually sensible United Church), was a deliberate attempt to forcibly assimilate indigenous children into the dominant Canadian culture. An estimated 150,000 First Nations children were forced into the system, starting with the 1876 Indian Act and peaking around the 1930s, although, shockingly, the last school was not closed until the 1990s. Aboriginal children attending the schools were usually removed from their families, deprived of their ancestral languages, exposed to physical and sexual abuse by staff members and other students, and in some cases sterilized, even tortured. In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) mandated a $2 billion compensation package for survivors, and in 2008, after a public apology by the then Prime Minister, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to gather first-hand statements from survivors.
As part of the IRSSA agreement, the 50 "Catholic entities" that ran many of the schools reluctantly agreed to pay a total of $79 million for healing and reconciliation programs for the survivors - a paltry sum in the scheme of things, both in terms of the overall scope of the IRSSA, and in terms of the Church's wealth - made up of $29 million in cash, $25 million in "in-kind services", and a further $25 million that, for reasons best know to the Conservative government of the time, was to be tied to a 7-year fundraising campaign. A court case last year, designed to get the entities' to pay up the fundraised portion of their obligations, revealed that they had only been able to raise $3.7 million of the $25 million, despite their supposed "best efforts".
Then, due to what is usually described as a "miscommunication" by one of the federal lawyers, Alexander Gray, the Catholic entities were led to believe that  they could walk away from their fundraising responsibilities if they paid just $1.2 million to resolve the case. The Court of the Queen's Bench of Saskatchewan later ruled that this "deal" was binding, despite its bearing no relationship with the federal government's clear intentions, and the Catholic Church was suddenly off the hook. The government, for some reason did not appeal the decision, and the appeal period has now expired, and no other legal remedies now remain.
So, a series of embarrassing legal mistakes by the outgoing Conservative government, but it seems to me that the moral duty of the Catholic Church - to step up to the collection plate, as one wag had it - still remains. Yes, the ultimate responsibility to make up this shortfall is the government's, as Mr. Fontaine points out, but the Department of Indigenous Affairs is trying to persuade the Catholic Church that the moral imperative is actually theirs.
So, here is a handy little test case to evaluate whether the Catholic church is ine fact an ethical organization, or whether it is willing to hide behind a legal technicality to evade its obligations. I will follow the outcome with interest.

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