The moderator of the United Church of Canada officially apologized Tuesday for his denomination's complicity in the "pain and suffering" caused by church-run residential schools for native Indians. Saying B.C. has become the prime testing ground for mending the centuries-old rift between native Indians and other Canadians, Bill Phipps said his denomination is "truly and most humbly sorry" for those who were physically, sexually and emotionally abused as students at United Church-run residential schools.
The United Church statement is arguably the furthest-reaching apology any group has issued on residential schools. Phipps said he doesn't know of any Canadian denomination or government that has issued such a "bald" and specific acknowledgment of blame for residential schools.
The leader of Canada's largest Protestant denomination said it's important to issue the apology at the same time the church is contesting a recent precedent-setting B.C. Supreme Court decision that concluded the United Church and the federal government are equally liable for compensating victims of a Port Alberni residential school.
The United Church of Canada faces almost 100 civil lawsuits relating to how it ran some of Canada's 130 residential schools. Many of those lawsuits have been aired in court this month by former students at the United Church's Port Alberni residential school, where former dormitory supervisor Arthur Plint has already been convicted of molesting dozens of native boys.
"The B.C. lawsuits have made the residential school system the lightning rod, or even a metaphor, for our over-all relation to the First Nations people," Phipps said in a telephone interview.
While many in the United Church are justifiably nervous that Tuesday's apology will increase the financial liability of the 800,000-member United Church to civil lawsuits, Phipps said, the vast majority of the denomination's 70-member executive decided this week it was worth the risk.
However, Willie Blackwater, one of the roughly 30 native victims of Plint who is seeking damages, said the United Church should also accept legal responsibility if it's serious about apologizing. "They should advise the court that they are prepared to accept legal responsibility equally with Canada for the assaults we all suffered while at the school, and that they are now prepared to compensate us for those assaults," Blackwater said.
But Phipps said the United Church wanted to issue the apology at this point because questions of legal liability are "very complex... and subject to argument and debate and legal niceties."
Phipps said he was terribly saddened by the death last weekend of Darryl Watts, one of the students of the Port Alberni school in the 1950s and '60s who was suing the United Church and the government of Canada. If Watts' drowning death is determined to be a suicide, as many suspect, he would be the second suicide among sexual-abuse victims at the Port Alberni school.
Natives across Canada have to date launched more than 1,400 civil lawsuits aimed at Canadian churches and the federal government, which funded the schools. The majority of the lawsuits are directed at the Oblate Brothers and the Catholic church, which ran most of Canada's residential schools. Former Prince George Bishop Hubert O'Connor and several other Catholic clergy have been either convicted or charged with sex crimes while operating B.C. residential schools in the 1960s. Catholic officials have expressed worry that the lawsuits could bankrupt churches.
On Tuesday, a $1.7-billion class-action lawsuit was launched against the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada by former students of an Ontario residential school and their family members. Russell Raikes, the London Ont., lawyer representing the natives, told reporters at a press conference Tuesday it is the largest financial claim in regard to alleged abuses at a residential school. About 360 natives are already on board, and Raikes said he expects more than 1,000 former students from Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford to take part in the suit. Shawn Tupper of the federal department of indian affairs said it is the first class-action lawsuit dealing with residential schools brought against the federal government.
Phipps' apology on Tuesday follows two much more general statements of regret to native Indians that the United Church released in 1986 and 1997. Explaining the necessity for three different apologies, Phipps said: "Repentance is a long road and it's going to go on for generations."
TORONTO (CP) - The United Church of Canada has apologized for its role in running aboriginal residential schools, now notorious for the sexual and physical torture inflicted upon native children staying there.
The apology comes one week after new evidence showed church and federal officials knew about the abuse as early as 1960, but did nothing about it.
Church moderator Right Rev. Bill Phipps apology to aboriginals followed a four-day meeting and a long session of soul-searching by the church's general council executive. "On behalf of the United Church of Canada I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused," Phipps told a news conference.
"To those individuals who were physically, sexually and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which The United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology. You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused."
Phipps said church members must now begin the difficult task of rebuilding their fractured relationships with natives.
There were more than 80 native residential schools across Canada from the early 1800s until the mid-1980s, run by churches under contract to the federal government. They are now infamous for the ritual degradation and molestation of the native children who lived in them.
Vancouver lawyer Peter Grant represents former students of the Alberni Indian residential school on Vancouver Island in a B.C. Supreme Court civil suit against the church and government. Almost all of his clients were sexually abused and beaten by Arthur Plint, who worked as a dormitory supervisor at the school between 1948 and 1968. Plint, 80, pleaded guilty in 1995 to dozens of sexual assaults on aboriginal boys. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
Last week in Nanaimo, B.C., Grant revealed documents in court which showed the vice-principal of an Edmonton residential school admitted in 1960 to indecently assaulting male students and was convicted of the crime. Church and government correspondence revealed efforts to keep the matter from being publicized and showed officials had concerns about other sexual abuse allegations at residential schools. The documents also showed that the highest levels of the United Church and the Indian Affairs Department were aware but did nothing to eliminate the risk of sexual abuse.
"Moderator Phipps' apology must be considered in the context of the events in Nanaimo last week," said Grant, calling the apology an important step that shows the church is taking some responsibility.
The next step is compensation.
Willy Blackwater, a client of Grant's, said the United Church should be "prepared to compensate us for those assaults" if its leaders are serious about the apology.
At the request of the church, the Nanaimo trial was adjourned last Thursday until April of next year.
The federal government apologized in January for the abuse as part of its response to the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Indian Affairs Minister Jane Stewart also put up $350 million for a "healing fund" for counselling within aboriginal communities.
Meanwhile, former students of a native residential school in London, Ont. announced Tuesday that they have filed a class action lawsuit against the federal government and the Anglican Church of Canada.