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Documents show church used multiple strategies to avoid paying millions to residential school survivors

BY Ben Powless Oct 27, 2021

The Roman Catholic Church is responding to renewed criticisms after it was revealed that the church had managed to avoid many commitments to pay residential school survivors as part of the 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). 

That agreement, in which the federal government offered a formal apology and compensation to residential school survivors, also obligated the Catholic Church to pay survivors $29 million and offer another $25 million as “in-kind” donations. 

However, a 2015 investigation by CBC and the Globe and Mail unearthed court documents that demonstrated how the church managed to reduce its payment to only $1.2 million. It was able to get out of fundraising obligations after only raising $4 million out of the pledged $25 million. 

The church said it had nonetheless donated $25 million in “in-kind” donations, which included addiction treatment and scholarships, but also questionable items such as Bible study groups and routine travel expenses to send clergy to remote communities. 

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and others are calling for a criminal investigation. Part of the concern is over the fact that the Catholic Church in Canada does not have one centralized body. Thus, the legal obligations from the IRSSA were against a corporation formed to represent the Catholic Church in the legal proceedings. 

That corporation was dissolved after 2015, which means no central Catholic entity remains that is responsible for reparations to residential school survivors. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, also parties to the IRSSA, respected their financial obligations – but the Catholic Church ran most of Canada’s residential schools.

All of this was settled behind the scenes in a 2015 court case, in which federal government officials alleged that the church had spent more than $6.4 million of the fund meant for survivors on legal and administrative fees and other expenses.

The documents were only unearthed in early October after CBC News and the Globe and Mail won a judicial order to expose the contents of that court case. A further Globe and Mail investigation revealed that the Catholic Church across Canada had combined assets of $4.1 billion, while receiving yearly donations of $886 million, making it the largest charity in the country.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, told CBC News that the documents showed that the Catholic Church had betrayed survivors, but also that the federal government and courts allowed them to get away with it. 

“From the get-go, this was not something survivors sat in the room and agreed to. Survivors were outside of this,” she said. Turpel-Lafond noted that the Canadian government could re-open the court case. 

After calls to boycott Catholic mass, a petition to end the church’s tax-exempt status, calls by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for the Catholic Church to take responsibility, and churches burned down after the unearthing of mass graveyards on the grounds of former residential schools, Catholic bishops from across the country finally issued a public apology to residential school survivors on September 24.

“We, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, gathered in Plenary this week, take this opportunity to affirm to you, the Indigenous Peoples of this land, that we acknowledge the suffering experienced in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools,” the statement on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) read.

“Along with those Catholic entities which were directly involved in the operation of the schools, and which have already offered their own heartfelt apologies, we, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally.”

The CCCB also pledged a renewed fundraising effort to raise $30 million over five years, encouraging local parishes to participate. They pledged that funding would be determined locally, in consultation with Indigenous communities in each region.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in a statement that she welcomed the apology. “However, I am disappointed that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops did not take the long overdue step of passing a motion/resolution to formally invite the Pope to Canada to offer his apology to First Nations and Indigenous survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors here on Turtle Island,” Archibald added.

The CCCB told the Nation that the bishops recently committed to engage with the Pope on a potential visit to Canada and highlighted that a delegation of Indigenous leaders would be granted a papal audience from December 17-20 at the Vatican. 

“While we cannot speak for the Holy Father, we are confident in his understanding of the ongoing and historical trauma caused by residential schools, as well as his commitment to playing a constructive role in the healing and reconciliation journey,” the CCCB said in a statement.

The bishops’ organization said that it believed that the Catholic parties to the IRSSA had met their obligations, but that they recognized there was “widespread disappointment” with the fundraising campaign, and that they were confident their renewed fundraising pledge would be successful in “achieving its financial goal and in delivering meaningful contributions to Indigenous communities and residential school survivors.”

The Pope had said in June that he was pained by the discovery of children’s remains at residential schools but did not offer an apology at the time, despite offering similar apologies for the church’s role in colonialism and sins committed in Bolivia against Indigenous communities there.

by Ben Powless, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.