Catholic bishops pledge $30M for residential school survivors, AFN expresses skepticism


Canada’s Catholic bishops on Monday said they would give $30 million to help support survivors of the residential school system, a pledge met with cautious optimism by survivors, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) and others.

Students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in February 1940. Canada’s Catholic bishops have pledged $30 million to help survivors of residential schools. (Library and Archives Canada)

Canada’s Catholic bishops on Monday said they would give $30 million to help support survivors of the residential school system, a pledge met with cautious optimism by some survivors and skepticism by the Assembly of First Nations. 

“I’m glad they’re saying it, but I’ll wait until we see it,” said Madeleine Whitehawk, a Cote First Nation elder and a survivor of St. Philip’s Catholic residential school in Saskatchewan.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said the funds will be doled out over five years. The move comes after the CCCB apologized to Indigenous people for the suffering endured in Canada’s residential schools, most of which were run by the Catholic Church.

“This effort will help support programs and initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of residential school survivors and their communities, ensuring resources needed to assist in the path of healing,” CCCB president Raymond Poisson said in a statement.

“The commitment will be achieved at the local level, with parishes across Canada being encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.”

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said the bishops’ pledge is ‘long overdue.’ (Paul Poirier/CBC)

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in a statement the pledge was “long overdue.”

And, she added: “Due to previous financial promises by the church not being met, [I’m] sure the Bishops will understand First Nations skepticism and mistrust about their commitments.”

The church committed in 2005 to pay $29 million in cash under the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement, but documents recently obtained by CBC News showed much of the money was spent on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company and unapproved loans.

It also promised to give “best efforts” to fundraise $25 million, but raised less than $4 million. There was also a commitment to provide $25 million worth of “in-kind services.” Church officials say that third commitment was met.

WATCH | Millions for residential school survivors spent on lawyers, administration: 

Millions meant for residential school survivors spent on Catholic Church lawyers, administration

The Catholic Church spent millions of dollars earmarked to residential school survivors on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company and unapproved loans, according to documents obtained by CBC News. 2:12

“We’re no longer accepting hollow apologies. Concrete actions and changed behaviour are essential as we walk the healing path forward,” Archibald said. 

Action and dialogue over reconciliation have ramped up since the early spring after several Indigenous communities across Canada reported finding unmarked burial sites on or near the grounds of former residential schools. The CCCB said it would help locate more unmarked sites.

Archibald and other Indigenous leaders have called on Pope Francis to visit survivors and to apologize in person for the church’s role in running residential schools.

The CCCB said in June national Indigenous leaders will meet with the Pope at the Vatican in December. A delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit will meet with him separately between Dec. 17 and 20.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre said there’s “unfinished business” on disclosing school documents and records of unmarked graves. But she said the $30-million announcement is a big step worth celebrating.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, pictured in 2020, said the $30-million announcement is a step worth celebrating. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

“It’s quite remarkable. It’s very welcome — a very, very positive thing,” Turpel-Lafond said.

“It suggests they’re getting serious about taking concrete steps here.”

Turpel-Lafond said the effort must be transparent, with regular public reporting and accounting. It must also be led by survivors and their descendants

“This is all so important to start building trust,” she said.

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