Indigenous leaders soon heading to the Vatican say they want to see restitution for the harms that Canada’s residential-school system inflicted on generations of families – with more financial compensation from the Catholic Church and delivered more quickly than it has promised so far.
Last fall, after a public outcry over the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential-school sites, the bishops of Canada made a new national fundraising pledge, with a target of $30-million over five years. All three lead delegates, representing First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups, now say they want a more substantial – and swifter – response.
The church has “an ethical and moral obligation, in the spirit of reconciliation, to immediately provide this funding,” said Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, who is leading the Inuit delegation, in an interview.
“We are a bit incredulous to think that an entity with so many land holdings, and such vast assets, is unable to identify $25-million for the hundred-plus years of human-rights abuses perpetrated against Indigenous children,” he said. “It doesn’t compute when you see the Catholic Church’s current footprint and sustainability in this country.”
Catholic Canadians face ‘moment of crisis’ as Indigenous delegation heads to Vatican to call for residential-school apology
Mr. Obed is not alone in his message. Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council (MNC) and lead of the Métis delegation, said the church has more to do in terms of restitution. “The Vatican is a state that holds a lot of wealth. And for [the church] to only rely on a fundraising campaign from their parishioners … sure, it plays a role in reconciliation, but there’s a larger role for the Vatican itself to play.”
The message is being conveyed as a delegation of Indigenous residential-school survivors, elders, knowledge keepers, youth, leaders and other representatives is headed to Rome. Pope Francis will meet with each of the three Indigenous groups starting on March 28. A final audience with the Pope is scheduled for April 1.
The Catholic Church ran the majority of residential schools in Canada, where at least 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children were separated from their families; many were forbidden from speaking their language and practising their culture. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called it a policy of cultural genocide.
As part of a 2006 settlement, Catholic Church entities agreed to several financial commitments, including to make their best efforts to raise $25-million for healing projects – an effort that fell far short, raising just $3.7-million.
A Globe and Mail investigation last year revealed the size of the church’s net assets in Canada, which are valued at a minimum of $4.1-billion in 2019, based on tax filings for thousands of Catholic Church organizations.
The Globe asked the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is covering the costs of the official delegation, for comment on whether it is considering a greater financial contribution or reparations, through asset sales or other means.
“There is clear consensus among Canada’s bishops that more needs to be done to advance healing and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,” said Jonathan Lesarge, the CCCB’s government and public-relations adviser, in an e-mailed response.
He said efforts right now are focused on the national fundraising pledge, providing records, engaging Pope Francis in the reconciliation process, and education. “Canada’s bishops will continue to work with Indigenous leaders on discerning additional steps we can take in the future,” he said.
The Assembly of First Nations is calling for a number of “immediate actions” from the church. In a press conference Thursday, NWT Regional Chief Gerald Antoine, lead delegate for the AFN and a residential-school survivor, said this includes greater contributions. The AFN wants to see “investment into long-term healing initiatives – beyond the recent commitment of $30-million announced on Sept. 27, 2021,” for support programs and services for survivors and their descendants.
Mr. Obed says restitution should go well beyond a fundraiser. ”When we think about the price of land and we think about the price of real estate, and the idea that none of that can be touched. And the only way in which the Catholic Church is able to make good on its legal obligation is to have individual Catholics, in 2020, to donate for this express purpose. It is categorically dissonant.”
Some churches that were involved in running the schools are taking a different approach with funding. The United Church of Canada has a policy that a minimum 10 per cent of the proceeds of most property sales go toward reconciliation initiatives, including a healing fund. It has also set aside money each year for reconciliation programs, and last year it approved $3-million to help finance investigations of unmarked graves at residential schools.
The Vatican said last year that the Pope has agreed to visit Canada as part of the reconciliation process, although it hasn’t said when, nor whether he will issue a public apology.
Mr. Obed wants the Pope to make a formal apology in Canada, for the Catholic Church’s role in operating the schools. He wants the church to support the work of reuniting children buried in unmarked graves with their communities – be it through sharing historical records, offering financial assistance or other supports.
“It is one thing to express sorrow and say that you are willing to open up any records,” he said. “It’s another thing to do all that you possibly can as an institution, with the power and resources that you hold, to help in a time of need for those most affected.”
And he wants the church to hold to account those who committed crimes while associated with the church – citing the case of Johannes Rivoire, an Oblate priest accused of sexually assaulting Inuit children, who was based in Nunavut and is now believed to be in France.
Ms. Caron of MNC also wants to see missing records shared and a papal apology. “It has to start with an apology,” she said.
“We just need acknowledgment of the harms and the wrongdoing – that the church caused harms, and that they did things that were wrong, and it still has an impact on our communities today.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.