Catholic Church: Will dioceses raise funds for survivors?
When 48 Catholic Church entities pledged to raise $25 million for survivors under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, it was made clear that they would do so through their “best efforts “.
Ken Young puts it another way.
“It was a weasel clause,” the former Manitoba regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations said in a recent interview.
“And they used it.”
In total, the campaign raised less than $4 million. It was part of the compensation package the Catholic entities agreed to pay under the 2006 settlement with Ottawa, former students and Indigenous leaders.
Nine years later, a Saskatchewan judge ruled that the ecclesiastical bodies – which had sought release from their remaining obligations – could indeed walk away.
“They said, ‘We tried our best and we failed,’” recalls Young, who is himself a residential school survivor.
“I was disappointed.”
That story set the stage for a new pledge Canadian bishops made last September that dioceses would dedicate $30 million to initiatives that provide healing opportunities for residential school survivors, their loved ones, and wider communities.
The discovery last year of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at former schools in western Canada also shed light on failures by Catholic entities to raise funds for survivors in the past.
Now the bishops are preparing for the imminent arrival of Pope Francis, who is expected to apologize for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in running the schools.
Catholic leaders are seeking donations to help support his visit, including through the sale of what a spokeswoman said will be “modest quantities” of t-shirts, hats and bandanas.
“All small profits will be directed towards the papal visit and the ongoing journey of healing and reconciliation,” said Laryssa Waler.
Although the Vatican is believed to hold considerable wealth, fundraising for reconciliation has been undertaken by Canadian Catholic entities. Leaders say the church in Canada has a decentralized structure, meaning decisions are made by individual dioceses.
The bishops are members of a national assembly called the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The group said it was not a party to the original settlement that sparked the ‘best efforts’ fundraiser, but nevertheless acknowledged its failure and said it had learned important lessons from what s had passed.
These lessons, the conference said, prompted it to create the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund and appoint Indigenous board members to oversee it.
The fund, registered as a charity in March, is accepting contributions and considering proposals for using the money, the conference said.
The organization also promised to provide public updates on progress towards the $30 million goal, which it pledged to reach by January 2027.
On Monday, he announced that dioceses have so far donated $4.6 million to the fund.
For Regina Archbishop Don Bolen, who oversees a diocese that includes 25 First Nations communities, it’s about building relationships and prioritizing reconciliation work. “We said we were making a financial commitment.”
The archdiocese has set a goal to contribute $2 million and has raised $1.5 million so far, he said.
As part of its efforts, the archdiocese suspended a multimillion-dollar campaign to fund cathedral renovations and a pastoral center.
Instead, Bolen recalled, church leaders decided “to approach these donors and say, ‘We have to do the work of truth and reconciliation first.’
He said that, like the general Canadian public, his parishioners have, in recent years, learned more about the legacy of residential schools.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced into government-funded institutions for a century, and the Catholic Church ran about 60 percent of them. Many children have been abused and neglected.
“In the church, it’s about seeing history in a new way,” Bolen said, “seeing the history of Catholic engagement with Indigenous peoples through a new lens, really attentive to the ‘experience of suffering’.
This heightened awareness, Bolen said, is one of the key differences he sees between the “best efforts” campaign of the past and the financial commitment of today.
“The parishioners were, for the most part, unprepared for this challenge and did not see things the way many of them do now.
The federal government announced last week that it would provide more than $35 million during the papal visit to Canada to support communities, organizations and residential school survivors.
Pope Francis is due to visit Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut July 24-29.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their loved ones suffering from trauma invoked by the memory of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 18, 2022.