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Native Women’s Association of Canada CEO Lynne Groulx is shown in an exhibit commemorating Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, at NWAC’s new head office in Gatineau, Que., on June 20.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

As a Catholic fundraising campaign gears up to raise millions for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, some residential school survivors and Indigenous leaders say money should be committed to resume the mission of a national Indigenous-led healing organization that was esteemed for its ability to respond to local community needs.

The organization, which was called the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, existed for 16 years and closed in 2014. It backed projects that helped to address the intergenerational effects of abuses in Canada’s residential school system. The AHF funded talking circles and healing camps on the land, peer counselling for youth and teachings from Indigenous elders.

The charity disbursed about $536-million to 1,345 programs over its lifetime. It was funded mostly by the federal government, as part of a 2006 residential schools settlement agreement. Catholic entities were also obliged to pay into the organization’s budget under that agreement.

A 2009 federal government evaluation highlighted the AHF’s success. Despite that, the organization shuttered after the Harper government eliminated its funding.

“The work of healing is an ongoing process. And I think the Aboriginal Healing Foundation was shut down way too soon,” said residential school survivor and advocate Garnet Angeconeb, who is based in Sioux Lookout, Ont. “There still needs to be a lot of healing for survivors and their families and their communities, as we talk about another tragedy relating to residential schools – that being missing children and unmarked graves.”

Garnet Angeconeb is a residential school survivor and advocate for residential school redress who is based in Sioux Lookout, Ont.Handout

Mr. Angeconeb and his late brother Harry, who lived at the Lac Seul First Nation territory near Sioux Lookout in northwestern Ontario, taken around 1958/59 prior to going to residential school.Handout

Discoveries of possible unmarked graves near former residential school sites this year and last have rekindled painful memories of abuse, neglect and attempted forced assimilation at the institutions, which thousands of Indigenous children were made to attend. The revelations have added urgency to calls for additional programs to support residential school survivors and their families.

The Assembly of First Nations last year called for investment in a national Indigenous healing organization that would “continue the important work” of the AHF. Mr. Angeconeb and other survivors likewise say the AHF is a blueprint for what should be established.

The unmarked grave findings have also spurred reaction from the highest levels of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis is expected to speak about the legacy of residential schools during a six-day visit to Canada in late July.

Catholic entities ran about 60 per cent of the schools in Canada’s residential school system, which operated for more than a century. The institutions were part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called a policy of cultural genocide. The residential schools settlement in 2006 set out three financial obligations for the Catholic church: $29-million in cash, to be paid mostly to the AHF, $25-million in in-kind services, and $25-million from a “best-efforts” fundraising campaign. The church fell short on all three fronts, experts say, including a $21.3-million deficit in its fundraising campaign.

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In September, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced a new Catholic fundraising campaign called the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund. It has a target of $30-million over five years.

The fund is being managed by Indigenous directors and will receive contributions from 73 dioceses. In addition to local fundraising efforts, the CCCB told The Globe and Mail, many dioceses are also looking at other ways to contribute, including by selling assets or reallocating existing funding.

A Globe and Mail investigation last year found the church has at least $4.1-billion in net assets in Canada as of 2019 – a conservative estimate that is based on tax filings.

The new campaign has been slower to start than originally anticipated. The bishops of Canada “recognize and share the disappointment that past fundraising efforts did not live up to the responsibility to meaningfully address the Catholic Church’s role” in the residential school system, the CCCB said in an e-mailed statement. The new fund, it said, “will be transparent and accountable in supporting the healing and reconciliation initiatives that Indigenous communities value.”

The CCCB did not specify how much has been raised so far, nor did it provide a breakdown of funding targets for each diocese. It did not answer questions about whether it will commit to permanent funding, or whether it is considering further reparations beyond the campaign.

Several Indigenous leaders say that the CCCB’s goal isn’t ambitious enough, and that the campaign’s time frame is too long. “It’s not enough. It’s hardly a drop in the bucket,” said Senator Yvonne Boyer, who is a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

Lynne Groulx, chief executive of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said the fundraising target is too low, considering the scope and seriousness of the issue and how many Indigenous people were hurt by residential schools. “It’s such a small amount ... It was not just one year or two years – it was generations of children that were harmed,” she said.

Some dioceses have already begun new fundraising efforts. Regina, which launched a campaign earlier than other dioceses, has raised $1.53-million so far, after appeals to donors, pew collections and a bequest. It also allocated some money from the previous sale of a church.

Vancouver has pledged $2.5-million over five years, and is already receiving grant requests for projects such as publishing the stories of residential school survivors, Indigenous language education and memorials. In Edmonton, Archbishop Richard Smith said funds from a campaign would be distributed locally.

A key misstep in prior years, according to former AHF executive director Mike DeGagné, was that the church tried to control how and where money was spent, largely through lawyers who tried to minimize payments. “If you want to control where the money goes, then it’s not really giving money is it? It’s directing money, according to your own principles – not Indigenous principles, or Indigenous needs,” he said.

The AHF backed projects based on proposals from Inuit, Métis and First Nations communities, which meant tailored local responses, rather than one-size-fits-all approaches to healing. Many projects bolstered what the residential school system sought to eliminate, such as Ojibway language lessons, sweetgrass ceremonies, storytelling, drum-making, dancing and traditional foods. The foundation also supported research. It published papers on mental health, domestic violence and Indigenous experiences in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Greenland.

The federal government’s 2009 evaluation of the AHF, conducted by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, said there was “almost unanimous agreement” that the foundation was very successful at achieving its objectives, and at governance and fiscal management. The evaluation said the vast majority of respondents reported positive impacts from the organization’s programs, including improved family relationships, increased self‐esteem and pride, achievement of higher education and prevention of suicide. The report noted that no “equivalent alternative” in Canada had been as successful as the AHF.

Indigenous groups pressed the federal government to continue its support for the AHF, but Ottawa did not extend the organization’s mandate. Instead, the government redirected funding to programs run by Health Canada. In an e-mailed statement this week, Indigenous Services Canada said there are “no plans” to restore the AHF.

By the time the AHF closed, there were about 900 people employed across Canada with the organization’s projects, Mr. DeGagné said.

Those involved with the AHF were people like Wally Chartrand, an Ojibway knowledge keeper in Winnipeg whose family members attended church-run schools. In 1999, he ran an AHF-funded program on building healthy relationships, offered through Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, a community-service provider.

He recalls several unique and positive aspects of the program. For one thing, he said, Indigenous people developed and delivered the programming. All of them had had experiences with residential schools, and they met regularly with a committee of elders, who guided the project.

“Out of that whole 150 years of the residential school era, the elders told us that they tried to take away our identity, they tried to take away our culture, they tried to take away our languages, they tried to take away even our spirituality,” Mr. Chartrand said. “But where they hurt us the most was in our ability to be in healthy, strong relationships. So that became our focus.”

For the next four years, the program conducted men’s, women’s and family retreats on the land, with songs, teachings about the past, sweat lodge ceremonies, sharing circles, serenity walks and group cooking sessions. Feedback from participants, Mr. Chartrand said, showed the program was having a positive impact.

Today, he said, many communities can’t offer those types of healing opportunities, because they lack stable funding.

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