[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
OTTAWA (CP) - Government officials were urged two years ago to provide a compensation package to aboriginal people who suffered in residential schools as an attempt to control the potentially explosive costs of lawsuits, an internal document shows.
The report, stamped Secret and obtained by The Canadian Press, compares the pros and cons of forcing claimants to go to court with offering financial redress to victims. It concludes that in the long run, compensation would be cheaper. "The number of individual claims as well as any negative implications for the federal government in defending such actions (lawsuits) would likely be minimized if a government policy, including some form of redress package, were adapted," says the 20-page report.
The document also warns against using the word "apology," preferring instead "an acknowledgment or expression of regret. It could be worded in such a fashion so as to not lay blame on anyone."
Government officials confirmed the report, which is titled simply Residential Schools Discussion Paper, was written in late 1995 or early 1996 for Ron Irwin, then the minister of Indian Affairs. It may also have been prepared for the Justice Department. The report never reached current Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart and the advice in it never formed the basis for actions she later took, officials say.
Earlier this year, Stewart issued a Statement of Reconciliation, saying the government was "deeply sorry" for those who suffered the "tragedy" of physical and sexual abuse at the schools. The statement also included a $350-million healing fund.
"It was critical that the apology meant something to us," said Shawn Tupper, spokesman for the minister on the residential schools file. "We can point to (the $350-million healing fund) and say were actually doing something substantive to back it up."
The statement has been accepted by national Chief Phil Fontaine, however other native leaders said at the time that it wasn't good enough.
But critics who have read the 1996 document say the federal government has followed the advice to the letter. They say its evidence the statement is not an apology at all but merely an attempt to control costs.
Ovide Mercredi, a former national chief, said the document shows "the minister didn't follow her heart or her sense of justice." "She followed legal advice and the advice was to reduce legal liability at all costs and the government measure is designed to do that."
Fontaine was unavailable for comment.
The document advises that forcing former students to take the government to court would ensure they would have to prove their claims. As an added advantage, it would also limit lawsuits, the report states. "There is a general disinclination by persons who have suffered abuse to testify on such a personal and painful matter in a public and adversarial forum," the report says. "A litigation approach may well keep the number of claimants down to a minimum." owever, going to court would cost the government dearly in money and in bad press, the report concludes. The author, who is unnamed, recommends a compensation package instead.
Since the report was written, thousands of former students have joined class action suits or have filed individual lawsuits against the federal government. A landmark B.C. court ruling last month declared for the first time that both the federal government and the United Church are legally liable for widespread sexual and physical abuse at a Port Alberni, B.C., school and ordered them to compensate about 30 former students. A figure for the compensation has not yet been decided.
The mounting lawsuits are anticipated in the 1996 report, but the document also cautions that apologizing is dangerous territory. "Whatever it is called, the department will want to ensure that the statement cannot subsequently be used to establish a cause of action against the Crown in any particular individual cause," it states. "It would appear that this government is committed to looking ahead and in these tough economic times, it would not want to be involved in anything that is too expensive or linked to the past."
Tupper said the departments thinking has evolved since the report. When asked at a news conference last January if the statement of reconciliation was an apology, Stewart responded yes. "In our view, the statement of reconciliation is not an acknowledgment of guilt in a court of law," Tupper said. "It is an acknowledgment of a historic policy and the negative impacts of that policy and it is a commitment to do something about it."
However, John McKiggan, a lawyer for about 800 former students at the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, said the internal document reveals the federal governments strategy. "There is an amazing similarity between the present and suggestions made in the paper," he said. "The statement of reconciliation does not apologize for government actions. It recognizes the pain. It doesn't admit responsibility for that pain."
AFN Grand Chief Phil Fontaine