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  Oblates face bankruptcy

Legal fees from residential school suits could put order under

Canadian Catholic News
WCR Staff Writer

Almost 10 years after the Oblate Conference of Canada issued a sweeping apology at Lac Ste. Anne for abuses to aboriginal people, the six Oblate provinces that ran residential schools for the federal government are being forced to the brink of bankruptcy by legal costs.
"We estimate the cost each year at over $2 million just for organizing our defence," said Father Jaques Gagne, coordinator of the Oblates Residential Schools Working Group.
The cost doesn't include compensation payments, he told Canadian Catholic News. "They (the claims) are so numerous now. The provinces are kind of overwhelmed by it all."
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate provinces are named in about half of the 7,000 lawsuits filed against the churches and religious orders that operated the residential schools.
The Oblate provinces ran 57 of the schools, most of them in western Canada.
Like the Anglican Church of Canada, which says it may be forced to declare bankruptcy as early as next year as a result of residential school claims, some smaller Oblate provinces, such as the Manitoba congregation, are not expected to survive the lengthy and costly claims-substantiation process now in place, let alone pay compensation.
The Edmonton-based Grandin Province of the Oblates is also being forced to the brink of bankruptcy by the claims.
Since January 1998, the Grandin Province, which administered nine residential schools and was involved in 14 others, has been hit with 1,700 claims from native people alleging they were sexually, psychologically or culturally abused in residential schools.
The Oblates brought the Catholic faith to Alberta and have served in the province continuously since the 1840s.
"We are spending half a million dollars a year just to deal with the claims that are coming in," provincial superior Father Camille Piche told the WCR June 6. "We cannot sustain the costs. Unless something changes, we are heading straight into bankruptcy."
Piche said he read the first 500 claims before realizing "they were all the same."
"Unfortunately some of the lawyers simply do carbon copies of them, simply changing the names and the dates. That makes you doubt about the validity of some of them." The order spends at least $2,000 to process each claim.
Piche worries legal costs alone will take all the order's money away, leaving nothing for plaintiffs. "At this point plaintiffs are not receiving any money and that worries us because we feel that if there is anywhere the money should go it would be to the plaintiffs."
The order has little money coming in, he said, because about half of its members are retired.
The Grandin Province of the Oblates has about 100 members, 50 of whom are retired and not providing any income. Another 25 are over age 65, but still working.
In March, Father Chris Rushton, the superior of the Oblates of St. Peter's Province, told parishioners of the Oblate-owned St. Joseph's Church in Ottawa that the church may have to be sold to pay debts resulting from the lawsuits.
In May, Father Jean-Paul Isabelle, provincial superior for the Oblates in Manitoba, said his congregation is on the brink of bankruptcy, having spent almost $1 million responding to more than 1,900 lawsuits filed against it by native people who allege they were abused in residential schools.
Adding to Oblate conference's financial woes is what it and the churches view as an unsympathetic federal government, one that has never fully accepted responsibility for the residential school system, which was designed to assimilate natives into white society.
Piche said the government must get involved in the issue because they were responsible for providing education to native people.
"They were the ones that established policy and they were mainly responsible for the schools, they are the ones that signed the treaties giving education to the aboriginal people."
Aboriginal leaders have said the churches that ran the schools helped the government carry out its policy of "cultural genocide" against natives.
But Oblates, like Gagne, note that the missionaries often broke the federal government's own rules by preserving native languages and culture in various ways including the development of dictionaries, grammar and written forms of oral aboriginal languages.
If those who attended Oblate residential schools have an academic knowledge of their language and are able to write and read it, "it's because the missionaries did that," said Gagne.
The government "wants us to be co-responsible," he said. "The difficulty with that is that we can't be involved financially as much as the government can be. If it wants to place us on an equal footing, this is very threatening to us, so we say 50-50 is not fair."
In a position paper, the Oblate conference says Church organizations were active participants in "a misguided, historic government policy of cultural and racial assimilation, supported and endorsed by the Canadian public."
Where Church institutions were negligent in their care, they should be held accountable, the paper states, "Otherwise, it is the federal government's responsibility to bear the costs and consequences of its policy."
Church sources also note that only about one in three of the 7,000 residential school claims involve Church organizations, the other two-thirds originate with the government.
Even so, the federal government typically counter-sues Church organizations or individuals even where the plaintiffs haven't done so, the Oblate conference points out.
"The government, I think, came to the conclusion that they couldn't come out publicly and say they, alone, are responsible," said Gagne.
The Oblate conference and the churches prefer the alternate dispute resolution approach to claims settlements.
Nine pilot projects involving the churches and the federal government are underway which, according to the Oblates, are designed to "incorporate concepts of restorative justice more familiar to native people as well as enable a broader ranger of solutions including options for reconciliation."
One of the stated goals of the religious order is to "fairly compensate those who have valid claims against Oblate provinces arising from their residential school experience once liability is established."
But it also believes the churches should pay a "proportional" share of costs "in a process that caps liability based on capacity to pay and that allows more of our resources to go to compensation than to process."
Gagne says the current litigation route to settling the complaints of the over 7,000 former residential school students who have filed lawsuits is "enough to jam the legal system" and could go on for many years, bankrupting Oblate provinces in the process.

  June 12, 2000