24 JUNE 2000, Page 16


The law is a smart ass and, says Mark Steyn, it is making a chump of the Anglican Church in Canada

New Hampshire EVEN IN a litigious society, it's important to know whom to sue. If you take McDon- ald's to court, you may get away with it, as did that gal who hit 'em for a gazillion dol- lars because she'd been scalded when she spilt her coffee into her lap while driving along holding the polystyrene cup between her thighs. But McDonald's will vigorously defend themselves and do what it takes. Their coffee cups now loudly declare 'WARN- ING: CONTENTS MAY BE HOT' on all sides.

When I turned up the cup, I was impressed to find the warning printed on the bottom, too, although my respect for their thoroughness was offset by the excru- ciating pain of the burning liquid as it poured through the lid and hit my crotch. I fear it will be some time before my own quarter-pounder is supersized again.

But arguing about the precise tempera- ture of your beverage is far too scientific. Suing a major corporation for more elasti- cally defined offences is much more lucra- tive. A couple of years back, a Texaco executive was assailed for using the n-word in an illegally taped board meeting: a `transcript' of his words was read out on every network news show as evidence of the company's racist policies. When the original, poorly recorded tape was eventu- ally released and digitally filtered to improve the sound quality, it emerged that the guy had been making some remarks not about `niggers' but about Santa: no racial slur had passed his lips.

Nonetheless, by then, Jesse Jackson, America's number one shakedown artist, had succeeded in using the transcripts of wholly imaginary racist epithets to pressure Texaco into coughing up millions of dollars to sign on with the Reverend's `sensitivity' programs. Naturally Johnnie Cochran, the lawyer who successfully defended OJ in one of his murder trials, has his piece of the action, too. Last Wednesday, he slapped Coca-Cola with a $15 billion lawsuit alleg- ing that the company maintains racially biased hiring practices and a hostile work environment for blacks. Coke were stunned: not because, as you might think, the compa- ny that taught the world to sing in perfect harmoneee are unlikely racists, but because earlier that very day they'd finally settled a bitter 14-month discrimination suit on the very same issues, and the beneficiaries of that settlement include Mr Cochran's new clients — four black women who used to work for Coke. That's right: four women are suing for $1.5 billion. The lawyers will skim off some $600 million or so for themselves, but that still leaves 225 million bucks apiece for each of the disaffected Coke workers.

But, again, Coca-Cola will mount some form of defence: after all, these guys are businessmen and, while they're happy to throw money at the Revd Jackson's sensitiv- ity rackets to make him go away for a while, they're still minding the store. When you're bandying around charges of racism, what you really need is a client with a big pile of assets who's riddled with abnormally high amounts of self-doubt. That's where the Anglican Church of Canada comes in. And, when you think about it, it's amazing that no one came up with the idea before. What does the average wimpy Anglican cleric say when you raise any pressing social prob- lem? 'We are all guilty.' He cannot, in law, answer for Bud and Iry and Mabel down the street, but we're entitled to assume from that 'we' that he's at least speaking to his own guilt. And so it has proved.

The case goes back to 1879, when the government of the Dominion of Canada decided to set up 'residential schools' for Indian and Inuit children and get the Churches to run them. The Catholics, Angli- cans, Methodists and Presbyterians were happy to do so as part of their missionary work. The government's thinking was that these schools would help assimilate the natives into Canadian society, which was regarded as an enlightened and progres- sive thing to do 120 years ago. By the time the last residential school closed in 1996, it wasn't. Assimilating natives into (white) soci- ety now comes with a snappier label: cultural genocide. Cultural genocide is like genocide but with the happy benefit, from the plain- tiffs' point of view, that you don't personally have to be killed in order to have a case.

What were these schools like? Well, in 1990 Chief Phil Fontaine, then leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, announced that he'd been sexually abused while at the residential school in Fort Alexander in the Fifties. By the mid-Nineties, a small number of his fellow alumni had begun filing suits. No doubt many Spectator readers take the line of the bluff chap Hugh Grant finds him- self talking to after the first of the Four Weddings: 'I was at school with the groom's brother. Buggered me senseless. Did me a world of good.' Alas, across the ocean the traditional values of the British public school are no longer in fashion. The trickle of lawsuits has now swollen to a flood of 6,324 — at the last official count, that is: it grows larger every week and, according to some estimates, is now about 10,000 (not including the class action suits). The cost in legal fees is so great that, even before any settlement, the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church (the Methodists) face bankruptcy. The other day, the Angli- can primate, Archbishop Peers, announced that the General Synod will be bankrupt by 2001, a date he compares to Good Friday. `We really are called to be the body of Christ,' he said. 'Dead. Absolutely dead. And just as absolutely destined to rise.'

But Easter could be a long time coming. The Archbishop's theory is that, once the national Church has gone bankrupt, dioceses and parishes will be able to survive. But it's hard to see how. Individual dioceses such as Huron and Cariboo are already facing state- ments of claim running into the billions. The bishop of Cariboo, Bishop Jim (inevitably), has informed the Supreme Court of British Columbia that the diocese has exhausted its cash reserves and can no longer afford even to send a lawyer to attend the daily court proceedings against them. The wily Catholics, whose orders and dioceses are separate legal entities, are thought to be one step ahead of the game on this one. But recently, in his sermon at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in downtown Ottawa, the Revd Chris Rushton served notice on his parishioners that in the suits against his own order, the Oblates of St Peter's Province, a court order to liquidate assets would mean the church itself would have to be sold — to be converted into a Starbucks or a gay disco.

Is it really possible that even the randiest clerics could sodomise so many thousands? Not exactly. Rape, assault and other specific acts are alleged by a relatively small number of plaintiffs, but the phrase that recurs in 90 per cent of the claims is the vaguer one of `cultural genocide'. In practice, this means fellows like Mel George. Mel spent his schooldays at the Gordon Residential School in Saskatchewan and, though he was never assaulted or molested and thought this whole thing was phoney baloney', when the hotshot lawyer breezed into town to sign up clients, his brother told him to go along. He came away a changed man, look- ing at his life in a brand-new way — his problems with women, the law, his convic- tion in the mid-1980s for sexual assault.

Interviewing Mel for Saturday Night (like the Speccie, a Conrad Black publication), Larry Krotz put it this way: 'He decided to blame the school for his life.'

That's what this case is: the big historical reckoning with the white man. Thus, many plaintiffs, having battled with alcoholism, figure that the root cause must be their schooldays. Alcoholism is pretty endemic among native communities: the premier of Newfoundland, Brian Tobin, was accused recently of 'ethnic stereotyping' when he said, in effect, that it was impossible to deal with Inuit leaders in Labrador because so many of them are alcoholics. But, on my highly unscientific, anecdotal experience of natives, it seems to me that the percentage of alcoholics among residential-school grad- uates is no higher than among the general population — and one could even make the case that, since they stopped being educated by Catholics and Protestants, alcoholism among natives has actually increased. But no one wants to hear that, and no one wants to hear about the natives who look back fondly on their schooldays least of all the defendants in this case, who certainly have no time to waste on the idea that the schools they ran might have done some good. The modern Church lapses so reflexively into an agonised liberal guilt trip that it effectively conceded liability upfront. Last month, the general secretary of the Anglican Church, Archdeacon Jim Boyles, released a statement: 'Our com- plaint is not about bankruptcy. It is about the litigation-based response which, in our view, will guarantee that many plaintiffs die before their suits are settled, that the compensation they ultimately receive will be dwarfed by the costs of litigation, and that the adversarial and exacting nature of the legal system — which provides com- pensation for some actions, but denies it for other, equally harmful actions — make it impossible to redress the wrongs of resi- dential schools through litigation.' In other words, the Church's only objec- tions are that some plaintiffs may die before they've had a chance to fleece the Anglican coffers and that others may not receive corn- pensation for additional unspecified 'harm- ful actions' for which the Church is responsible. That's not exactly a ringing 'Not guilty, m'lud'. Can anything save Archdea- con Jim from himself? The federal govern- ment could, if they weren't so busy suing the Churches themselves. In cases where plain- tiffs have sued the government — these were, after all, government schools Ottawa has responded by dragging in the Churches as a third party. Seven of the eight suits currently before the Supreme Court of British Columbia have been brought against the Anglican Church by the government of Canada. 'Cultural genocide' — which means denying Indians their own heritage and making them bone up on Queen Victoria, Wolfe and Montcalm, etc. — is a serious grievance. And if, in mitigation, the Angli- cans and Catholics are obliged to go out of business, so be it. It would be heartening if an Anglican bishop stood up and declared that to equate the evangelising of the Chris- tian faith with 'cultural genocide' is absurd and obnoxious, but don't hold your breath. The 10,000 plaintiffs have plenty of vague accusations, historical resentments and a hefty dose of false-memory syndrome, but against Archdeacon Jim that's all you need.

Onward, Christian soldiers, retreating into oblivion. As for 'cultural genocide', if there's any going on these days, it's the genocide of the Britannic inheritance — in North America, in the Antipodes, in Blair's Britain. Only a generation or two back, governments thought they were doing native children a favour by teaching them the English language and the principles of common law and the great sweep of impe- rial history, that by doing so they were bringing young Indians and Inuit 'within the circle of civilised conditions'. It's only 40 years ago, but that's one memory the government of Canada will never recover. No civilised society legislates retrospective- ly: if you pass a seat-belt law in 1990, you don't prosecute people who were driving without them in 1980. Likewise, we should not sue the past for non-compliance with the orthodoxies of the present. Can any- thing top suing a G7 nation's Christian Churches out of existence? You bet. If the Democrats retake the US House of Repre- sentatives in November, Congressman John Conyers will become chairman of the judiciary committee and will press ahead with legislation on reparations for slavery.

The starting point is that every African- American should be given the 40 acres and a mule that the Union promised to slaves at the end of the Civil War. Assuming they'll be content with an average 40 acres and not insist on, say, waterfront property in the Hamptons, the real-estate costs alone work out at about $900 billion, even before you toss in the mules, and the $10 billion for all- black colleges and various other wheezes. Alderman Carrie Austin of the Chicago City Council, which last month called on Congress to pay reparations, concedes that `there's not enough money in this world that would be satisfactory'. But for now all the money in the world is a good opening offer. No wonder, during a Democratic primary debate in Harlem, both presidential candi- dates — Al Gore and Bill Bradley refused point-blank to rule out reparations. Some time around the year 2020, the natives of what was once Canada will launch an almighty land misappropriation claim against the blacks of what was once the United States: the very last lawsuit on the most litigious continent in history.