Thursday, January 31, 2008

Catholic archbishop says church will take part in child-abuse inquiry

Roman Catholic bishops pledged their support yesterday for a truth commission on Indian residential schools, saying Catholics will speak publicly at the hearings to "balance" the official history of what happened for decades behind closed doors.

Participation from the Catholic Church, which ran about 70 per cent of the schools jointly with the federal government, was far from certain until now.

Sylvain Lavoie, the archbishop of the Keewatin-Le Pas diocese spanning northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba, said the public will learn that abused students were not the only victims in the federal schools policy that lasted more than 100 years.

"There was a lot of good intentions," the archbishop said. "And sometimes the very people staffing the schools were perhaps in some ways victims themselves of a flawed system, of unreal expectations and certainly perhaps very unjust working hours. That type of thing. So I think we'll be able to tell the full story, which I think Canada needs to hear."

Archbishop Lavoie, who speaks Cree and has spent most of his career working in northern aboriginal communities, said all stories should be told.

"That those who maybe suffered in some way, abused, that they would be heard. But also that those who were involved in the schools as teachers or religious [staff], would also be heard," he said.

Archbishop Lavoie was one of seven northern Canadian bishops who met yesterday morning at an Ottawa church with Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Mr. Fontaine, who has been travelling the country trying to get the 17 distinct Catholic entities to co-operate with the truth commission, praised the bishops for clearing up the "uncertainty" surrounding their participation. However, the northern bishops insisted they could not speak for all other dioceses.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission is part of last year's multibillion-dollar, out-of-court settlement between former students, the churches and Ottawa. The commissioners are expected to be announced shortly and will then have a five-year mandate to tour the country and compile the official history of Indian residential schools in Canada.

In advance, the AFN and church leaders are planning a joint cross-country tour to religious communities to raise awareness of the commission.

Mr. Fontaine attended two Manitoba Catholic Indian residential schools and, in 1990, was one of the first native leaders to go public with allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

In the years since, many more former students have come forward. But what is rarely heard is the perspective of those who worked at the dormitory schools, whether as religious leaders, teachers or general staff.

Speaking after his informal news conference with the archbishop, Mr. Fontaine said the biggest victory resulting from yesterday's meeting may be through access to the Catholic records relating to the schools, which could be a key source of information.

"In our view, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the most important part of the settlement agreement," he said. "It's really about writing the missing chapter in Canadian history."
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