The Lethbridge Herald

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

Compensation offer 'not right solution'

Ottawa's offer to pay 70 per cent of damages claimed by aboriginals abused in government-owned residential schools is not the solution, a Lethbridge lawyer says.

But it may benefit some of the thousands of victims involved in lawsuits filed against the government and the Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches which operated the schools.

"This opportunity to settle will be met with some relief by some of our clients," Rhonda Ruston said Tuesday.

Ruston and Calgary lawyer Vaughn Marshall represent nearly 600 of 3,700 Alberta claimants. She said she suspects some clients will jump at the opportunity to settle out of court and end the long and difficult process.

It could mean, however, they won't ever receive compensation for their other complaints.

"The unfortunate thing about this proposal is it ends up treating the victims of the residential school disaster like personal-injury victims in a lawsuit," Ruston said.

The proposal would likely compensate for proven cases of physical and sexual abuse, but it probably won't compensate for cultural abuse, loss of education and loss of language.

While Ruston doesn't diminish the impact of sexual and physical abuse, she said aboriginals have been hurt even more by the near destruction of their communities.

She said victims also suffered from substandard education and emotional abuse after being torn away from their families, all caused by the residential school system.

Even children who weren't actually physically abused still "lived in terror of abuse."

Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray said the offer could cost taxpayers more than $1 billion to compensate some 9,450 former students able to validate their claims of abuse.

But it leaves the churches, which are struggling with the feds to determine their share of liability, to deal with the issue alone while trying to avoid financial disaster.

Rev. James Robinson, of Saint Augustine's Anglican Church in Lethbridge, isn't impressed with Ottawa's offer.

"I'm disappointed," he said. "I think it's a cynical move on the part of government. They're trying to get themselves out of a pickle."

Robinson said victims taking up the federal offer might still approach churches looking for other 30 per cent, which would could be financially fatal. The Anglican Church is already facing bankruptcy.

It's ironic the federal government leaves the churches in the lurch with its offer to pay 70 per cent of damages, he said, while saying it doesn't want churches to go bankrupt.

"Obviously they're quite happy do see that happen."

Robinson would like to see the government take sole responsibility for abuses at residential schools. He points out most of the claims are against federal policy which established the schools. The government then drew the churches into the fray as third parties.

Ruston disagrees, however, and said even though the government owned the schools and set policy, those who operated them must take responsibility for the abuse.