American churches interested in George W. Bush's program of "faith-based" social services should carefully consider the experience of Canadian churches with Native residential schools.

Faithful Unto Bankruptcy

Lessons of the Residential Schools in Canada

The framers of the United States constitution knew a phrase, not much used today: "mitre and sceptre". It referred to an alliance between the governing authorities and the dominant, or "established" church. They feared an alliance between government and religious leaders using both a police force and threats of Hell to control dissent. The debate over the separation between church and state has generally reflected this concern: that religious believers might succumb to the temptation to oppress other believers, or non-believers. In fact, the protection provided by the separation of church and state works both ways. It shields the public from the passions and conflicts aroused by religious belief, but it also protects the churches from the errors and failures of society.

President George W. Bush has said he wants more social services delivered by religious organisations. Faith has played an important part in his life; he believes it can improve the lives of other people.

Basing a social policy on such considerations makes it a matter of individual moral uplift: showing erring souls the right path. But social policy, as opposed to the search for the right path by individuals, involves far more than individual moral uplift. A social policy must rather address the complex and very difficult question of how to live together. The answers we get to this question change with time and experience. Many times, we come to the conclusion that social policies have failed. And failed social experiments can have great and lingering effects.

Many Canadian churches, including the church I belong to, have learned this lesson the hard way. For much of this century, several Canadian churches administered a government program which attempted to provide education Native children from isolated communities in residential schools. The legacy of this program has now generated a series of lawsuits that threaten to destroy several Roman Catholic orders, and may bankrupt the Anglican church in Canada. Anglicans in the Diocese of Caribou, one of the smaller and poorer parts of the Anglican Church of Canada, must now confront the stark prospect of handing over the keys to their churches: the scenes of their weddings, their childrens' baptisms, and their parents' funerals.

While the Canadian government had the responsibility to see to the education of Native children, they went to the churches to operate many of their schools. They did so partly because the churches in Canada had a long tradition of involvement in education; some officials probably felt church-run schools would help convert any of the Native people who had retained their own religions.

Today, many Canadians, certainly many Natives, consider the residential schools at best a disastrous mistake, and at worst, a deliberate attempt to destroy Native cultures. Some people have even referred to the policy as cultural genocide. Whatever earlier generations of Canadian officials thought of the Native people, whatever they intended, the residential schools and other policies devastated Native communities. Natives lost language, culture, and with them, their sense of community. These losses, combined with poverty and the isolation of many native bands, have led to terrible social problems. These social problems, combined with a record of broken promises and mismanagement by the government, have fuelled an anger that has boiled over into thousands of lawsuits. Many of these suits name the government, as the author of the residential schools policy rather than the churches. However, the government has sued the churches to establish joint liability wherever it can find legal justification to do so.

The sorry record of abuse at some residential schools leaves no doubt that the churches who ran them have a lot to answer for. Abuses at Native residential schools in Canada ranged from chronic underfeeding, physical and sexual abuse, to poor health care. In at least one case, the authorities documented the results of the bad state of the children's health, in a "study" reminiscent of the infamous "Tuskeegee experiment". The churches have already documented their failures; the Anglican and United Churches have both apologised for their role in operating residential schools, and they have offered to pay compensation. Yet the specific abuses account for only a small proportion of the lawsuits now facing the churches. Much of the litigation arises out of claims that the policy of residential schools, by separating children from their parents for long periods of time, and forbidding them to speak their languages, denied Native children not only their language and culture, but also their parenting skills and sense of community.

Paying compensation for their own failures will not destroy the churches, but they cannot defend themselves against every claim the government has brought against them in the courts. A cynical observer might conclude that the Canadian government has adopted a modernised approach to Christianity: where Nero used lions to devour Christians, the present Canadian government uses lawyers for the same purpose. In fact, the uncertain fate of Canadian churches has a more complex, even tragic cause: the churches have got caught up in the process of an evolving social consensus.

Since the first settlements of North America, governments and societies, both aboriginal and settler, have wrestled with the question of how to accommodate both societies and cultures. The earliest treaties, documents, and constitutional sources for Canada and the United States address the question of coexistence. We can hope the time will come when our societies find better ways to live together, but right now, we still have a lot to learn. And we have purchased the knowledge we do have at tremendous cost, a cost largely paid by the Natives.

The attempts by the churches to come to terms with the tragic legacy of residential schools reflect the belief that since we all benefit from the encounter between different cultures, the people from one culture should not have to cope with all of the bad consequences of contact. And most of us would acknowledge that the Natives have had to cope with the majority of the problems that have arisen from their encounter with European society.

Unfortunately, the question of how to make the contact between cultures rewarding for everyone remains a hotly debated issue. Not all Canadians respect Native rights or culture. Some still see Native rights as a nuisance, and Native communities as a burden we cannot afford. Some people refuse to see Native culture at all.

Some of those people have used the harm the lawsuits may do to Canadian churches as another argument against native rights. The suffering of Christian communities faced with the loss of their places of worship makes a compelling and frightening picture; and most of the people who oppose justice for the Natives have managed to ignore the role the government and its lawyers have played. In effect, if not in intention, the Canadian government has turned Christian communities into human shields against the Native peoples harmed by past government policies. The churches have repudiated and apologised for the old policies of assimilation; that has not stopped those who still refuse to accept the demands of Native people for justice from using the current suffering of the church to ignore the prior suffering of Native people.

The Canadian churches have learned the hard way that good intentions do not suffice; that the church cannot simply offer support to individuals. It does not do for the churches to offer "faith-based" solutions as a means to a better life, if that "better life" only means fitting more comfortably into an unjust social order. The churches cannot do good if the definition of "good" comes only from the needs and the outlook of politicians. Churches should only act as government contractors if they have no doubt that, after decades of reflection, they will still believe in what the government wants to do. Otherwise, they may find themselves held hostage to the legacy of government policies they have long ceased to believe in.

John Spragge is president of Dancing Cat Software of Ann Arbor Michigan. His Medicine Line columns appear from time to time in the Ethical Spectacle.