[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.]
A landmark court ruling that ordered the federal government and the United Church of Canada to compensate victims of sexual abuse at a church-run native school could be a devastating blow to Canadian churches and social agencies, observers said yesterday.
"This is a major threat to every church in the country," said Gerry Kelly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The potential costs are exceedingly high. I don't really know what's going to happen. The number of cases has just grown and grown."
In Ottawa, federal bureaucrats met with officials from several churches yesterday, trying to determine what should be done in the face of what appears to be a staggering number of claims.
At the moment, churches and the federal government face at least 1,000 abuse cases from native Canadians who attended the schools, and lawyers connected with the issue say the number may escalate.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien said yesterday that Canada, which has been asked to defend its treatment of native children at the schools before a United Nations tribunal this week, is ready to accept its responsibility, although it will review each case separately.
"It looks like the court has attributed to the federal government some responsibility," he said. "If we have responsibility, we have to meet our responsibilities."
In a court ruling released last week dealing with a residential school in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, the B.C. Supreme Court found that both the federal government, which financed the school, and the United Church, which ran it, were jointly liable and must compensate those who were sexually assaulted at the school by Arthur Plint decades ago.
The ruling is considered a landmark because it transfers accountability from Mr. Plint to his employers. Although it has been cheered by victims, others warn that the ruling could have far-reaching effects.
"The price of this could be high," said Freya Kristjanson, a civil-litigation specialist with the Toronto firm Borden and Elliott. "The implications are enormous. There might never be girls soccer in your neighbourhood again. The Boy Scouts could fold."
"This is a huge development," Ms. Kristjanson said. "It means that a bad employee can put his employer out of business. Until now, that is not what the law in Canada has said."
Ms. Kristjanson said if the ruling is upheld by higher courts, workers could destroy their employers. "There will be a cost to this. One bad person could bankrupt an organization -- even an organization that is doing good works."
She said decisions relating to liability are keenly followed by lawyers involved in compensation cases, especially those involving sexual abuse. "It's a deep-pockets issue. Plaintiffs are trying to find someone who can pay them for the wrongs done to them."
Observers say the crucial aspect of the decision is the way it extends the concept of vicarious liability, which determines where an employer's accountability ends and an individual's begins. Until now, the courts have generally ruled that an employer can't be held liable for their employees' actions if there was no way to anticipate them.
Gary Hodder, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in litigation, explained the effect of the ruling by using the example of a truck driver who struck and killed a pedestrian. Traditionally, the employer would be held liable if the driver hit the pedestrian but not if the driver intentionally ran someone down.
Mr. Kelly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the B.C. court decision was suprising. "We hadn't expected it, to tell you the truth. It is a major development."
More than 80 residential schools for native children were set up in the past century in almost every province in Canada. Officials estimate that up to 125,000 native children passed through the system before it was closed in the mid-1980s.
This week, Mr. Chretien (or a senior government representative) has been asked to appear before an international human-rights tribunal to defend Ottawa's record on caring for the children at the schools.
An international court, convened by tribal leaders from across North America, will hold three days of public hearings in Vancouver beginning Friday as a response to complaints of sexual abuse, assault and cultural genocide at the schools and pleas for justice.
The testimony is mainly for the benefit of the International Human Rights Association of American Minorities, which is formally affiliated with the UN. The association is expected to report to the UN Secretary-General. It is believed to be the first time that the non-governmental organization has investigated a situation in Canada.
Although the tribunal does not have the force of law behind it, the association's findings could embarrass Canada at the UN, where Canada often criticizes other countries over human rights.
"I'd be surprised if the Canadian government chose not to send anyone to defend their management of these schools," said Rudy James, an official from the association who will write the report.
Harriet Nahanee, 62, who said she was abused at the Alberni school and who pushed for the hearings, said the government is giving money for healing to everyone but the victims. "They are giving money to the band offices, to the treaty commissions, but not one cent has gone to the men who were sexually abused," she said.
Ms. Nahanee, a member of the Pacheedaht Indian band around Port Renfrew, said she remembers seeing a girl killed at the school more than 50 years ago and that the death was covered up. She intends to raise the allegation at the hearings.