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Politics Indigenous Affairs Minister says it’s up to Catholic Church to put things right

Sisters from the Soeurs du Sacre-Coeur d'Ottawa pose with students at the Pukatawagan Residential School, in Pukatawagan, Manitoba in a 1960 archive photo.

HANDOUT/REUTERS

Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister says she believes Catholics across Canada are ashamed to learn their church negotiated its way out of an obligation to try to raise millions of dollars to help former students of church-run Indian residential schools recover from the abuses they suffered.

Carolyn Bennett said Sunday it is now up to Catholics to put things right.

"What we're hearing is that only the Catholic Church and the Catholic entities can actually do reconciliation for their past, that they have to recognize their role in this terrible chapter in Canada's history. And I think Catholics from coast to coast to coast are embarrassed that this has happened and want to help," Dr. Bennett said in an interview on CTV's Question Period with The Globe and Mail's Robert Fife.

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"I don't think there's any excuse for this and I think the whole of the Catholic Church needs to have another look," she said. "There's actually a moral obligation to get on with this and let the healing begin."

As a result of a miscommunication by the federal government and a subsequent deal between Ottawa and the more than 50 Catholic orders that ran many of the schools, the Catholics were allowed to walk away from a commitment, written into the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, to try to raise $25-million for healing programs. In the end, they collected less than a sixth of that amount and donated just more than $2.1-million to programs for survivors.

Indigenous Affairs officials said in e-mailed responses to questions last week that there has been no direct contact between the department and the Catholics since The Globe and Mail revealed two weeks ago that the church had been released from its fundraising obligations.

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. The amount they eventually donated to the survivors was less than that because of costs associated with raising the money.

There were also continuing obligations to disclose documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that investigated what went on at the schools, to participate in compensation hearings and to take part in planned reconciliation events.

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.

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Negotiations commenced and, according to the Indigenous Affairs officials, a deal to release the Catholics from their financial obligations was signed by Colleen Swords, the former deputy minister, on Oct. 30 when the government was operating under the "caretaker convention" before the Liberals were sworn into office.

The signing of that agreement could not wait for the arrival of the new government, they explained, because the deal stipulated that matters had to be wrapped up by the end of October.

"If Canada had waited beyond Oct. 30 to conclude the settlement agreement with the Catholic entities," they said, "then it would have had to focus its efforts on an appeal with an uncertain outcome instead of a settlement which guaranteed the payment of funds from the Catholic entities to the Legacy of Hope [a foundation created to help school survivors] for healing and reconciliation programs."

The government maintains that the final document cannot be made public, even though a draft has been filed with the court and it is not marked confidential. The Indigenous Affairs officials explained that, in agreements such as this, "the other party must agree to its release" and that "Canada cannot unilaterally release the terms of the final settlement between Canada and the Catholic entities."

They said the agreement was necessary "to ensure that the Catholic entities continued to be bound by the non-financial obligations under the settlement agreement," including the provision of documents to the TRC.

Although the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had already released its list of 94 "Calls to Action" the previous spring, and was preparing to make public its lengthy final report in December, the government officials maintained it was important to hold the Catholics to their obligation to release documents to the TRC because the Catholics and the TRC were in litigation regarding the document disclosure.

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Ken Young, a lawyer from Winnipeg who spent 10 years in residential schools, has asked the parties to the settlement agreement to meet to discuss ways to make the Catholics collect more money for healing and reconciliation.

"They should get together and fix this," Mr. Young said. "I am disappointed that the government has not taken anyone to task. I am disappointed that the Assembly of First Nations is not taking anyone to task. I am actually very disgusted."

With a report from Sean Fine in Toronto

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