The Canadian government released Catholic groups from an obligation to try to raise $25-million for aboriginal healing so that it could hold the groups to other promises they made in the historic 2007 residential schools agreement, a draft of their agreement reveals.
In return for paying $1.2-million for healing programs, the 50 Catholic entities wanted to be released from any and all of their obligations under the residential schools settlement agreement, government officials told The Globe and Mail. Those include being required to disclose documents to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated what went on at the schools, participating in compensation hearings and taking part in planned reconciliation events, said the officials, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
Under the final deal struck in October, however, the Catholic groups agreed to continue with all but the financial obligations, the officials said.
Although the Liberals refuse to disclose the final agreement, a draft copy was given to The Globe by Archbishop Gérard Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan in Grande Prairie, Alta. The draft was undated and unsigned.
The government confirmed the document sent by Archbishop Pettipas was a draft of a final agreement signed on Oct. 30, but refuses to say how close it is to what was eventually signed.
The Liberal government says the final agreement is confidential and requires the Catholic groups' agreement to release it. The Liberals say the Conservatives negotiated it and signed it before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office.
In July, a judge ruled that the federal government had inadvertently released Catholic groups from their obligations under the residential schools settlement. Ottawa commenced an appeal in August but then withdrew it six days after the Liberals took office in November.
The draft agreement says that a Saskatchewan court's ruling releasing the Catholic groups from their obligations under the 2007 settlement pertains only to their financial obligations – which include using their "best efforts" to raise $25-million for aboriginal healing.
As part of the draft agreement, Canada agrees to pay the Catholics' legal costs for the hearing that led to the ruling last summer releasing them from their legal obligations; for their part, the Catholics agree not to seek costs for preparing for the appeal that never came. Canada also agrees not to join in any financial claims made against the Catholic entities over their contributions to aboriginal healing. The Catholic groups raised just $3.7-million, of which less than $2.2-million was actually donated for healing programs.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair demanded during Question Period on Thursday that Minister of Indigenous Affairs Carolyn Bennett explain why the appeal of the July court decision was abandoned six days after the Liberals took power. "Is she still going to blame the Conservatives or is she going to stand in this House and explain why they let the church off the hook?"
Dr. Bennett replied that the agreement was signed on Oct. 30, five days before the new government took power, and that it was the former Conservative government that initiated negotiations leading to that agreement and agreed to withdraw a notice of appeal.
"The government continues to work with the Catholic entities to urge them to fulfill their financial commitment to their reconciliation with aboriginal people in this country," Dr. Bennett said. "This is not something the government of Canada can do."
Mr. Mulcair retorted that the Liberals could have scrapped the agreement. "If they do not really agree with it, why did they not just reverse the decision?"
MP Charlie Angus, the New Democrat critic for indigenous affairs, said it is a "travesty" that two of the defendants to the residential schools settlement agreement – the Catholic entities and the government – drafted and signed a deal that releases one of them from their obligations.
"It's really a moral question for the Catholic Church if they have any seriousness about the word reconciliation," Mr. Angus said. "And it's also a moral question for this Liberal government. They should be going after the church over this side deal. I don't care who signed it."
Both parties have walked away from their mandate to bring justice to the survivors, he said.
John Phillips, a Toronto lawyer who represented Phil Fontaine and the Assembly of First Nations in the original settlement talks, took issue with the confidentiality.
"The whole intent of the settlement agreement and the class action that supported it was reconciliation," he said in an interview.
"If there was good reason to release the Catholic entities, that should be known and disclosed. Background deals that leave people guessing whether special considerations were taken or favours played take away from the reconciliation we were seeking in that deal," he said. "And part of the problem for the aboriginal community is that the whole involvement of Canada in this process was subject to secrecy and non-disclosure for so many generations. And so an open and transparent process is what the whole group of survivors needs."
The date on the agreement to release the Catholics from their commitments under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement could prove the claims of Liberal officials that their government had no choice but to abandon an appeal of a July court decision that also let the Catholics off the hook.
"This, if signed, would seal the deal," Toronto lawyer Kirk Baert, who represented residential school survivors in the 2007 settlement, said in an e-mail.