From optimism to disgust in the time it takes to remove a headdress

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Pope Francis - Photo credit to Adam Scotti
Pope Francis - Photo credit to Adam Scotti

“IT’S been exactly a month since Pope Francis visited Canada to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools.

There’s been much goodwill. Good words. Big promises for changes by bishops and priests. The Pope even wore a headdress.

Some might even call it a moment of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples.

Well, that was fun while it lasted. Last Saturday, The Canadian Press reported on a secret 2015 deal between Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and Catholic leaders to “forever discharge” the church from its legal obligations to raise $25 million for residential school survivors.

Negotiated during Harper’s final days in office, the document states: “Canada does hereby remise, release and forever discharge the Catholic entities, its directors, officers, shareholders, agents, lawyers, and employees of and from all manners of actions, causes of action, suits, debts, dues, accounts, bonds whatsoever against the releasees.”
Obtained via an Access to Information request, the unpublicized deal allows the church to renege on its obligations under the 2005 Residential School Settlement Agreement.
It also pays for the church’s legal costs.

At the time, Catholic leaders had raised only $4 million of the $25 million promised to residential school survivors.

Critics pointed to the fact the church had raised $300 million for new buildings at the exact same time but its leaders were adamant, arguing that raising the remaining $21 million for survivors was too difficult.

Appealing to a Saskatchewan judge in July 2015, Catholic leaders offered a $1.2-million one-time payment to discharge the remaining $21 million owed.

The judge agreed. Canadian officials appealed the decision, saying the judge made “palpable and overriding errors in his assessment of the facts.”

Then came the October 2015 federal election, which saw Harper’s government soundly defeated by Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.

Sometime during that month, the secret deal was hatched and signed by a deputy minister under former Aboriginal and Northern Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt.

Suddenly, the federal appeal being dropped, the case closed, and the Catholic church got away with paying one-fifth of its legal compensation to survivors.

Now Canadians know why, and that they paid for the church’s legal bills, too.

Harper’s awful treatment of Indigenous peoples is nothing new, but this represents a new low for the Catholic Church.

It’s been well documented how the church has failed to fulfil nearly every promise under the 2005 Residential School Settlement Agreement, from the $29 million direct lump cash payment (millions short and mostly used for legal fees) to the $28 million of “in-kind” services (which ended up in mostly missionization and conversion efforts).

The church kept this deal secret for almost seven years and would have got away with it if not for last year’s discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at Catholic-run residential schools – which resulted in international attention and further scrutiny from media.

There certainly would have not been any visit from Pope Francis.

Speaking of, it is undoubtedly true that Catholic leaders — if not the Pope himself — knew that the church had reneged on it’s legal obligations, making last September’s “new” promise of a $30-million fundraising campaign look more like a public relations campaign than anything else.

It also makes promises the church will act differently towards Indigenous communities ring hollow.

The fact is that the Catholic church continues to lie, cheat and negotiate backroom deals to deny survivors compensation. Little has changed beyond the Pope wearing a headdress and a well-publicized public relations tour of Canada.

It’s heartbreaking for those of us who thought last month’s papal visit represented a moment of hope, and it’s particularly upsetting, because it didn’t have to be this way.
The truth, something the Catholic church says it stands for, was never considered. Instead, the institution used its political power and a willing government heading out the door to skip out on what was the right thing to do.

Last July, church officials reported that $4.6 million had been raised from the “new” $30 million promised for survivors.

Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for the rest of it.

Meanwhile, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller has announced that he may potentially review the agreement made in 2015.

No amount of money will repair this situation made by Catholic hands and Catholic decisions.

No headdress will begin to cover it up.”

Niigaan SinclairNiigaan Sinclair

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press in August 2022. Republished with the permission of the author.


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