Experts on reconciliation are questioning whether the Catholic Church lived up to the terms of a $25-million legal commitment to provide “in-kind services” to residential school survivors, as newly released documents cast doubt on whether those services were adequately performed.
The documents, obtained by the Globe and Mail through an access-to-information request to the federal government, include an “in-kind log.” It contains brief descriptions of the services provided by Catholic entities. Those services were required under a national residential schools settlement reached between Indigenous groups, former students, the federal government and religious organizations in 2006.
The log, last updated in Sept., 2011, lists in-kind services including training for pastors, “community work,” outreach services and a biblical studies program. It is unclear from the descriptions whether these were services the church would already have been providing absent the settlement. It is also unclear to what degree the services were directed toward Indigenous peoples.
All told, nearly half of the 192 log entries list “community work and presence” by a pastor or religious sister. Some entries do not specify whether the listed services took place in Indigenous communities.
Other log entries include participation by one bishop and two priests in a healing pilgrimage, participation in a conference, and support for a pilgrimage to the Vatican.
Critics say the settlement process lacked transparency and a clear focus on survivors’ needs, and that a full review of past church obligations is warranted.
“I certainly support drilling down on these activities to see what was a genuine attempt to provide healing services and what would ordinarily be an activity of the Catholic Church,” said Mike DeGagné, former executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Aideen Nabigon, former director general of policy and partnerships for the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, who reviewed the log, said many of the in-kind services entries look like charity work the church would have been performing anyway, rather than efforts directly tied to reconciliation.
“It’s just completely against the spirit of the settlement agreement, which was supposed to be about reconciliation,” she said.
The access to information request, filed on August 24 by The Globe, asked for several files relating to the federal Department of Justice’s records on its dealings with the Catholic Church under the residential schools settlement, including a copy of both the in-kind services list and the cash commitment list. The government responded with those files on Monday.
This is the first time a log of how the in-kind services were provided has been made public. The documents released to The Globe on Monday do not elaborate on the services beyond providing a simple, paragraph-long description for each of them.
The in-kind services list became a point of contention during a 2014 Saskatchewan court case between the federal government and the organization set up to administer the church’s portion of the residential schools settlement agreement.
Under the settlement agreement, a group of dozens of Catholic Church entities agreed to make three forms of restitution: they would pay $29-million in cash, provide $25-million of in-kind services meant to bolster healing and reconciliation efforts, and lead a national, $25-million fundraising campaign to benefit survivors. That campaign ultimately raised just $3.7-million.
In a factum filed with the court, the government’s lawyers raised several concerns about the church organization’s accounting practices, and argued that the services the church had claimed against its $25-million in-kind commitment could not be verified.
“[The] auditor states $25-million in-kind services were provided,” the factum reads, “even though he has not audited these records and accounts, has no basis on which to value the services, and relies only on minutes of meetings provided by [the church].”
The case was eventually settled in 2015. As a result, the Catholic Church was released from its remaining commitments under the settlement agreement, including any outstanding questions about the in-kind services list.
There should be a sweeping review of how the settlement obligations were created, how they were carried out and accounted for, and why the government released the church from its commitments, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, a law professor and academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia. This should include a full release of all related documents, she added. She has filed access requests on this topic and waited years for responses.
“What did survivors get?” Prof. Turpel-Lafond asked, referring to the in-kind services. “What did the communities get? Did they get records? Did they get the services they wanted? Did they get acknowledgments and apologies and reconciliation activities related to residential schools? That’s a hard question.”
A committee that included church, government and Assembly of First Nations representatives made decisions on which in-kind services would count toward the $25-million total.
In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops noted that although it was not party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, it is now working to clarify the contributions made by the Catholic entities.
The Catholic Bishops of Canada, the statement said, “are fully committed to the process of healing and reconciliation.” The bishops issued a statement of apology to Indigenous peoples on Friday, and on Monday said they will start a nationwide collective financial commitment, with a target of $30-million over up to five years, to support healing and reconciliation for residential school survivors, their families and their communities.
The Catholic Church was responsible for running the majority of the country’s residential schools. Indigenous students were forcibly removed from their families and forbidden from speaking their languages or practising their cultures. Thousands of them died from malnutrition, abuse, disease or neglect.
Since May, more than 1,200 unmarked graves have been discovered at several former residential school sites. The discoveries sparked rallies and memorials across the country, along with calls for financial reparations and apologies from both the church and the Pope.
The Globe and Mail e-mailed questions about the in-kind services to Archbishop Gérard Pettipas, who was chairman of the Catholic entities group that was party to the settlement agreement, and did not hear back by deadline. The Globe also sent questions to Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada. A spokesperson said the department was working on a response but could not answer by deadline.
With a report from Chen Wang in Toronto
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