Media reports accuse Church of escaping financial obligations

There are several untruths circulating which will undermine the hard work of reconciliation done these last many years on the issue of aboriginal residential schools.

Media reports in recent weeks have accused the Church of escaping its financial obligations toward the global residential schools settlement due to a legal error by a bureaucrat in the federal government. The federal minister of aboriginal affairs has lent support to this view in her public comments.

So did the Church "weasel out" of its obligations? The answer is no, but it's a complicated tale.

Complicated tale
There is no legal entity that is the Catholic Church in Canada, but rather a collection of legally independent dioceses, religious orders, hospitals, educational and social service institutions. A group called "Catholic Entities" was assembled to be party to the settlement of the residential schools claims.

In 2006, the Catholic Entities (some 50 independent bodies that had been involved with residential schools) signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement; a process presided over by former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci. It was the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, and involved the government, churches and aboriginal organizations, in addition to the victims themselves.

Three promises
The Catholic Entities made three commitments. The first was a cash payment of $29 million for healing programs that would be run by First Nations. The second was a commitment to provide $25 million in in-kind services to victims and aboriginal communities. The third was a commitment to make "best efforts" to raise a further $25 million.

All of this was agreed to before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work, but as the TRC was finishing its work last summer, there was a desire to have the settlement concluded. The Catholic Entities and the federal government disagreed on whether the first commitment of $29 million had been met. Arbitration in a Saskatchewan court ruled that another payment of $1.2 million was owed, so the Catholic Entities paid that money and the judge ruled all their financial obligations had been met.

The second commitment required the Catholic Entities to provide $25 million in in-kind services to be delivered between 2007 and 2017. By 2014, the Catholic Entities had delivered nearly $30 million to community-based projects, 20 per cent more than required in three fewer years. Those services are ongoing, even though the legal commitment has already been met.

The third commitment, the "best efforts" fundraising campaign, was a failure. After seven years, the campaign only raised about $4 million.

Fundraising failure
The failure of the fundraising campaign was reported in the Catholic press in January 2016, but an April 19 report in The Globe and Mail charged that the Catholic Entities used legal trickery to get out of its obligations. The decision last summer by the Saskatchewan court stating the first commitment - the cash payment - had been met was presented as, due to sloppy legal work, releasing the Catholic Entities from their third commitment too.

That's a mistaken reading, as the Catholic Entities did not ask to be released from the third commitment. To the contrary, the commitment to make their "best efforts" had already been kept by 2013.

What was done?
What exactly was done? In 2006 the Catholic Entities launched their "Moving Forward" campaign to raise the $25 million. The chairman of the campaign was none other than Phil Fontaine, the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who had brought the entire issue of the residential schools to broad public awareness in the 1990s.

The campaign engaged the services of Ketchum Philanthropy, one the leading fundraisers for Canadian universities and hospitals. The campaign approached the large donors required to launch a broader appeal to smaller donors. There was little interest. After seven years, and having spent $2 million (which would be standard if the campaign had indeed raised $25 million) with little to show in return, Moving Forward dismissed the professional fundraisers and decided to hold a collection in the pews across the country.

Special collection
It was taken up on Dec. 8, 2013. The collection raised about $1 million; it had been hampered by Typhoon Haiyan hitting the Philippines the week before the collection. Fundraising for that emergency completely overshadowed the Moving Forward efforts. It would be like launching a fundraising collection last week during the Fort McMurray wildfires.

The Catholic Entities maintain they did what the committed to do, make their "best efforts." They raised $4 million, not $25 million.

"We tried very hard to meet the commitment that the Catholic Entities faced. We were unsuccessful," Fontaine told The Globe and Mail.

Why does this matter? First of all, because the truth should be known. Second, and more important, because the massive efforts of many Catholic leaders and aboriginal leaders over a decade are being disparaged. In the years ahead, if no good deed goes unpunished, where will the energy come from for the continued work of healing and reconciliation? The accusation of bad faith is not a promising invitation to continue the work.

Challenging realities
The failure of the fundraising campaign points to some challenging realities in the work of reconciliation between the churches and aboriginal peoples. Catholics in Canada today are not what they were 50 years ago. The great religious orders are dying out, and the Irish and French heritage of the Church is similarly dwindling.

The energy in the Church in Canada today is with immigrant groups and new movements, with roots of only a few generations. How do they look upon the residential schools when they weren't even in Canada at the time they were operating? What is their responsibility? The future of Catholic-aboriginal relations will look very different as immigrants assume the leadership of the Church in Canada. This will require continuing encounters, not ill-founded acrimony.

The failure of the fundraising campaign also draws attention to the lack of confidence many Canadians have in the competence of the government on the aboriginal file. In making philanthropic decisions, who would trust the federal government, which spends untold billions to no apparent effect, to be a good steward of such monies?

Many have laboured
The insinuation by the federal minister that Catholic Entities operated in bad faith will only diminish the enthusiasm of Catholics to continue their good work with aboriginal communities - evidence of which is the exceeding of the commitments of in-kind services. That would leave aboriginal Canadians ever more in the hapless hands of the minister's bureaucracy.

Many Canadians, both from the churches and from aboriginal communities, have laboured intensely for more than a decade to right, as much as is possible, the wrongs of the residential schools and to bring healing to so much pain. They deserve better than to be slandered for their good work.

Licensed from National Post for republication in The B.C. Catholic newspaper. (c) 2016 National Post.