Skip to main content
first nations

More than 50 Catholic orders that ran many of Canada’s residential schools were allowed to walk away from their commitment to compensate First Nations communities for the damage the schools caused, but some say they have a ‘moral obligation’ to reconcile.

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations says he will urge the Pope to press Catholic groups that ran Canada's Indian residential schools to renew their efforts to raise money for healing programs that he says could provide real help to those who were abused.

Perry Bellegarde has been trying for some time to arrange a meeting with the Pope to ask for an apology for the church's role in what happened at the schools, and also for a repudiation of the church's 1493 papal bull and its "doctrine of discovery," which gave Christian explorers the right to claim any lands they found that weren't inhabited by Christians.

"So this is a third reason, because there's a moral obligation on behalf of the church to do what's right," Mr. Bellegarde said this week of the failed fundraising bid. "I am going to be writing to Pope Francis and asking him to rectify this matter."

The more than 50 Catholic orders that ran many of the schools were allowed to walk away from their commitment, written into the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, to try to raise $25-million for healing programs – a pledge crafted to demonstrate the church's interest in reconciliation.

Pierre Baribeau, their lawyer, says they did their best – that a professional fundraising firm was engaged to run a national campaign to collect money, mostly from corporations but also from Catholic organizations. It was, in his words, "a fiasco."

The Catholic orders, known as the Catholic entities in legal documents, were also required to pay $29-million in cash and perform $25-million worth of "in-kind" services. By 2014, they had fulfilled the in-kind services, were $1.6-million short on the cash payment – which the entities said they did not owe because they had paid that much in legal and administrative fees – and had collected just $3.7-million of the $25-million in fundraising over the course of a seven-year campaign.

There were also continuing obligations to disclose documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated what went on at the schools, to participate in compensation hearings, and to take part in planned reconciliation events. The government says the Catholic entities wanted to be released from all of those things.

When the former Conservative government took the Catholic entities to court to force them to pay the missing $1.6-million in cash, a "miscommunication" between government and church lawyers caused a judge of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench to rule last July that the Catholic entities could walk away from all outstanding financial obligations for a payment of $1.2-million.

The Conservative government appealed. Negotiations commenced and, according to the Liberal government, a confidential deal was signed in late October that released the Catholic entities from their financial obligations under the settlement agreement. The appeal, which would become moot on the signing of such an deal, was dropped on Nov. 10, six days after the Liberal government took office.

That leaves the survivors of residential schools and subsequent generations without millions of dollars that could have been used for healing in communities such as Attawapiskat, the site of a recent suicide epidemic. In the first half of the previous century, children from Attawapiskat were sent to St. Anne's, one of the most notorious residential schools in Canada.

Mr. Bellegarde said the money could have paid for wellness centres and mental-health programming. "It could be preventing life and death situations," he said.

He asked how the Catholic entities and the government – two of the defendants in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement agreement – could have decided without the input of any of the other parties to that deal that the Catholics would be released from it.

"We have a settlement agreement and all of the parties to the settlement agreement have to work together," Mr. Bellegarde said. "It can't be just the churches and the federal Crown."

Bill Erasmus, the National Chief of the Dene Nation who handles the residential schools file for the AFN, also questions the legitimacy of a release that was granted without the participation of the representatives of school survivors.

"I want to go after this money," said Mr. Erasmus. If the church does not pay, he said, "then it's really telling our people that they never really had any intention of paying. Because they do have money."

Any additional funds collected, said Mr. Erasmus, would likely go to the Legacy of Hope Foundation, a charitable group created to raise awareness about the legacy of the residential schools and to support healing programs for victims.

Some Catholics who are angered by the news that their church raised so little for the people who were abused as children at the residential schools have contacted The Globe and Mail to point out that other Catholic fundraising campaigns run have been more successful.

By the middle of last month, for instance, the two-year-old Family of Faith campaign run by the Archdiocese of Toronto, had exceeded its original target by 55 per cent and had taken in $162.5-million. Much of that money will be used to build churches and repair existing properties.

The other churches that were signatories to the residential schools settlement agreement – the Anglicans, the Presbyterians, and the United Church – have met their financial commitments under the deal.

But the obligations of the agreement were not borne by the Catholic Church at large. They instead fell to the Catholic entities, many of which are dwindling orders of aging nuns. According to Mr. Baribeau, many of them are close to bankruptcy.

Carolyn Bennett, the Indigenous Affairs Minister, was asked by the NDP on Friday in the House of Commons about the role played by the federal government in releasing the Catholic groups from their obligations. Dr. Bennett has been steadfast in her assertion that the Catholics must put this right.

"We believe the Catholic Church, and only the Catholic Church, can achieve reconciliation with indigenous people in this country," she replied, "and we are urging them to do the right thing, pay the money they promised to pay. They have a moral obligation to do this for the healing of indigenous people."