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Cardinals and bishops wait for Pope Francis to arrive in Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., on July 26.IAN WILLMS/The New York Times News Service

The Catholic bishops of Canada committed to making historical records relating to residential schools more accessible, gave an update on their national fundraising campaign for reconciliation efforts, with $5.5-million raised so far, and said their work to strengthen relations with Indigenous communities is not over.

Three bishops spoke to the media at the conclusion of the annual plenary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cornwall, Ont., where 72 bishops gathered to discuss topics including next steps in the reconciliation process after Pope Francis’s visit to Canada in July.

The Pope apologized to First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential-school survivors for the church’s role in running most of the country’s schools. Calling it a “penitential pilgrimage,” he also said the church wants to “renew the relationship” with Indigenous peoples, although his comments fell short of tangible promises of concrete action, which many survivors had wanted to see.

“The Pope’s visit was significant … yet we also recognize it was but one step – an important one, but one step,” said Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton and general co-ordinator of the papal visit to Canada.

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He said the estimated cost to the church of the July 24 to July 29 visit, in which the Pope travelled to Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit, was about $18.6-million for expenses such as transportation and security. These costs will be covered by donations from parishioners along with contributions from the CCCB and various dioceses, and are separate from what the federal government spent, Mr. Smith said.

Funds for the papal visit are also separate from the church’s national fundraising campaign. The bishops said $5.5-million has been raised so far for an Indigenous reconciliation fund, which has a target of $30-million over five years. This effort was announced last year after a previous campaign – an obligation under the national residential-schools settlement – raised just $3.7-million of its $25-million goal.

The bishops were asked whether a five-year fundraising campaign is necessary, given the scale of the Catholic Church’s assets and yearly donations in Canada. William McGrattan, Bishop of Calgary and vice-president of the CCCB, said the hope is the campaign will have a long-term impact and lead to stronger relationships at the local level.

“Dioceses are choosing different ways of collecting those funds and making sure that commitment is made. Some may take up collections, others may find it through assets that they have … but they are trying to do it in a way that respects the commitment to healing and reconciliation.”

Cora Voyageur, residential-school survivor and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Alberta, would like to see a more ambitious response. She believes the previous $25-million obligation should still be fulfilled, in an addition to the current campaign – funds that could go to Indigenous-led programs to support culture, language revitalization and education for Indigenous communities. The church has the means, she said. “We all know that they’re not hurting for cash.”

Many Indigenous leaders and survivors had urged the church to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which helped form the legal justification for European colonization of non-Christian lands. The bishops reiterated that they are working with the Vatican with the goal of issuing a new statement. “Canada’s bishops continue to reject and resist ideas associated with the Doctrine of Discovery in the strongest way possible,” they said in a release issued on Thursday.

Some survivors want the return of Indigenous artifacts from Vatican museums. Bishop McGrattan said discussions are under way with the Vatican about both artifacts and records.

The bishops’ comments were made a day before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which commemorates the history and legacy of the residential-school system with events throughout Canada. More than 150,000 children were forced to attend the schools in a policy the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called cultural genocide.

The CCCB said in the release that it continues the work of providing records that will help survivors and researchers determine what happened at the schools. Acknowledging concerns from Indigenous researchers about “cumbersome processes” for identifying and requesting records, the CCCB said it has approved guidelines for dioceses “with transparency and simplicity serving as guiding principles.”

Ms. Voyageur, who is also a professor at the University of Calgary’s sociology department, said listening to survivors is crucial. “The artifacts, for one thing, I’d like to see those come back. I’d like to see the documents be made available. And having a relationship where it’s a partnership – and not one side telling the other how it’s going to be.”

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