Canadian Government and Churches Look for Solution to 1,000 Lawsuits

VANCOUVER—The Canadian government and several Churches are facing the possibility of having to pay up to $700 million following a landmark decision by the Supreme Court in British Columbia that found the government and a Church jointly liable for compensation to indigenous people who suffered abuse in a Vancouver Island residential school.

Each week there are an estimated 15 to 20 new lawsuits launched by those who claim they were abused as children. The total number of lawsuits is now more than 1,000 across Canada.

Justice Donald Brenner in the Supreme Court in British Columbia ruled early this month that both the United Church of Canada (UCC) — the nation's biggest Protestant Church — and the federal government were “vicariously liable” for sexual assaults committed by a former dormitory supervisor, Arthur Henry Plint. The judge noted that “vicarious liability” was defined as “the imposition of liability without fault.”

Plint, now in his 80s, is serving an 11-year prison term for sexually assaulting 18 boys at the Alberni Indian Residential School in the 1950s and 1960s. In his decision, the judge described Plint as a “sexual terrorist.”

Ed John, chief of the First Nations Summit, representing indigenous people, told CBC-radio: “It's a positive decision. We've always maintained that both the Churches and the government of Canada were responsible. This particular case was to determine the issue of vicarious liability.”

The case began Feb. 2 when Willie Blackwater told the court he had endured sexual abuse and beatings by Plint. He said he had tried to report the abuse to school authorities, but as a result had suffered further physical abuse.

In 1994, Blackwater went to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after telling his story to a United Church minister. At that time, he did not know that other students at the school had also experienced abuse. Eventually, 30 former students joined him in the legal action against the government and the Church.

Schools for indigenous people were run for almost a century by the Anglican Church of Canada, the United Church of Canada (UCC), and the Catholic Church, on behalf of the Canadian government. Government officials estimate that about 105,000 native children attended 80 schools before the last of the schools were shut down in the 1980s.

The government now reportedly wants to meet Church representatives to discuss the issue of compensation. Anglican, Catholic, and United Church officials have indicated they are very open to such a meeting.

Chief Ed John said that rather than drag hundreds of native people through the courts, the government and the Church should negotiate compensation for everyone. The UCC's moderator, Bill Phipps, said he hoped it would be possible to avoid the courts in the attempt to resolve these cases. But he added that it was too early to talk about compensation.

Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, Phipps said in a public statement: “As moderator of the United Church of Canada, I speak on behalf of our Church of the painful realities of residential schools in which the United Church was involved. We repent of our role in the spiritual and cultural abuse inflicted upon First Nations over many generations.” (ENI)