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Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett says the church has do to its part to meet its obligations to residential-school survivors.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Canada's Indigenous Affairs Minister says Catholic organizations are morally obligated to meet their commitments under the deal signed with survivors of Indian residential schools and the government will push the church to resume fundraising to meet those obligations.

Carolyn Bennett said it is not up to the government to compensate for the shortfall, even though it was a federal misstep that allowed the Catholics to walk away from a commitment to make their "best efforts" to raise $25-million for healing and reconciliation before even 20 per cent of that target had been achieved.

"I don't think that was the deal. I mean, the government does their part and the church was to do their part," said Dr. Bennett in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "I think we want to explain to the Catholic Church that we're serious about them honouring this obligation and we will apply deeper pressure."

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More than 50 Catholic organizations that ran many of the schools – known legally as the Catholic entities – were required under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement to pay $29-million in cash and to provide $25-million in "in-kind" services. Those obligations have been met.

But their efforts to raise the additional $25-million in donations fell flat. Over the course of a seven-year campaign, they collected just $3.7-million. And, as a result of what the federal government describes as a "miscommunication" by one of its lawyers during a court case in which Ottawa was trying to get the Catholic entities to live up to the cash portion of their responsibilities, the entities were unintentionally released last July from any obligation to attempt to raise more money.

As a result of The Globe's reporting of the issue, the failure of the Catholics to raise the full amount to which they had aspired is now in the court of public opinion, Dr. Bennett said.

"This is really important. I don't think you expect people to get off on a technicality," she said. "I think that Catholics will call on the church to do the right thing and I think their hearts are open to the need and it's time that the church put its institution in a place to be able to raise the money to make a huge difference."

When pressed by the New Democrats during Question Period, Dr. Bennett said much the same thing – that it is the church that should be compelled to pay.

Pierre Baribeau, the lawyer for the Catholic entities, says he explained to former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci, who represented the government at the time the deal was drafted, that raising $25-million in donations for healing was unrealistic because the Canadian public would see the survivors receive billions of dollars in compensation and would ask why more is needed.

"We had some strong resistance," said Mr. Baribeau. "The Canadian corporations did not want to bind themselves to a confessional campaign."

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As for going back and trying to raise more money, he said, the 75 dioceses of Canada have already been solicited for funds and many of them gave money to the campaign. "And a fair number of the dioceses are not far from bankruptcy anyway," said Mr. Baribeau.

Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, who chairs the board of the corporation of Catholic entities, said two years ago that they were told that corporations would be in a better position to donate money than Catholics sitting in the pews.

On Tuesday, Dr. Bennett said the church might have had more success if it targeted its campaign to individual Catholics, rather than corporate donors. She said she thinks envelopes labelled "For Aboriginal Healing" should be passed around the churches every week. "And I think the envelopes will fill up and so will this obligation."

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was instrumental in exposing the abuses that took place at the schools and who helped negotiate the settlement agreement for the survivors, has told The Globe and Mail it is the federal government that is legally responsible for the deal. And it is the government, he said, that should pay any funds that are still needed for healing and reconciliation.

Mr. Fontaine assisted the Catholic entities with their fundraising and said he believes the "best efforts" that were required under the agreement were made.

Thomas Cardinal Collins, the Catholic Archbishop of Toronto who was in Ottawa on Tuesday to argue against the government's new assisted-dying legislation, said the Catholic Church has been heavily engaged in assisting First Nations communities coping with the aftermath of residential schools.

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When his diocese was asked to make a financial contribution to help the schools' survivors, it did so, said Archbishop Collins.

In terms of "financial assistance, we need to do our best," he said, "but also I think we need to be present for people. Issues as profound as this, you know, it's human presence that's the most important thing and I think that is something that is irreplaceable and I think that is, above all, the solution to all problems …"

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