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Church had moral duty to residential-school survivors, but walked away

Residential-school survivor Lorna Standingready is comforted by a fellow survivor during the closing ceremony of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, June 3, 2015.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Bernard Valcourt, the former Conservative aboriginal affairs minister, found it frustrating that the Catholic Church wasn't living up to its commitments to residential-school survivors. And he felt the government was hard-pressed to do anything about it: If you wanted a guarantee the church would pony up the whole sum, why make a $25-million payment dependent on a fundraising campaign?

The answer – if you go back nine years to when the settlement was struck, and to Mr. Valcourt's predecessor, Jim Prentice – revolved around what the money was supposed to represent. The $25-million fundraising campaign wasn't supposed to be compensation, but part of the church's process of reconciliation with survivors, Mr. Prentice said. Who ever imagined the church wouldn't follow through?

"The sense always was that the religious institutions would, on a good-faith basis, fulfill the commitments that they had made," Mr. Prentice said in an interview. "I hope that on a good-faith basis they will carry forward and fulfill those responsibilities."

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Back in 2006, the church agreed to pay $79-million. (In fact, it wasn't the church per se – the church isn't a single legal entity, so dozens of smaller "Catholic entities" were party to the agreement.) Of that total, $29-million was to be paid in cash, $25-million was to be paid in so-called "in-kind" services" and $25-million was to come from the proceeds of a fundraising campaign.

The church was supposed to launch a seven-year "best efforts" fundraising campaign to raise that $25-million. But the effort wasn't all that good. They solicited corporations, but didn't launch a national drive with parishioners. They fell more than $21-million short.

"I remember very well that at the department we were quite annoyed that the Catholic [Church] would not, or did not seem anyway, to abide by what they had undertaken to do," Mr. Valcourt, the aboriginal affairs minister from 2013 to 2015, said in an interview.

By 2014, the so-called Catholic entities had collected just $3.7-million. And the government was suing for $1.6-million of the $29-million cash settlement, too.

It's in the course of settling that lawsuit that a government lawyer, Alexander Gay, accidentally let the church entities off the hook for more fundraising. (It wasn't obvious bungling: Although Mr. Gay told the church lawyer that they hadn't agreed on terms, a Saskatchewan judge ruled last July that Mr. Gay's correspondence would have led a reasonable bystander to conclude he had agreed to release the church from fundraising obligations – but it seems unlikely that a bystander would reach that conclusion.)

Mr. Valcourt, the minister at the time, doesn't recall being told about that legal let-off. But even so, he thought the government couldn't really press the Catholic Church to deliver on the fundraising pledge.

"You know, it was presented as something they ought, that they would try, to do," he said. If people wanted a guarantee survivors or First Nations would be paid, he said, they should have made it "compulsory."

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So why didn't they? Back in 2006, the new Conservative government wanted to move quickly to a settlement, Mr. Prentice said. The idea was for the country to resolve it, and move forward. Mr. Prentice and Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine held talks, and decided bringing churches into multiparty talks would slow them down.

So the federal government decided to take on the overall responsibility for a settlement, which in the end included both cash compensation and steps like the launch of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was the government alone on the hook: It would pay compensation, and then launch a wider reconciliation process.

Then the government took on separate talks with religious institutions – to make them part of the reconciliation process. "It was recognized that only the government of Canada had the capability to set matters right financially, but that there was a moral responsibility on the part of the religious institutions to participate in some way," Mr. Prentice said.

In other words, the pledge to raise $25-million wasn't a legal indemnity. The fundraising campaign was supposed to be part of the church's process to reconcile its part in the residential schools tragedy. And, it seems, the government never imagined they would ask for a legal let-off.

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