The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement allowed the Catholic Church to escape justice

It failed residential school survivors, and it failed the many Catholics of goodwill who expected better of their spiritual leaders

Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement
✎  WAYNE K. SPEAR | OCTOBER , 2021 • Current Events

WHEN THE INDIAN RESIDENTIAL SCHOOL lawsuits began in the 1990s, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops proclaimed that “the Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the Residential Schools” and that legal responsibility fell upon the individual dioceses and religious communities — the Jesuits, Oblates, Grey Nuns, Sisters of Providence, Daughters of Jesus, and so on.

This opening gambit would be succeeded by others, of an equally insincere and squalid nature, to minimize the liabilities of a church implicated in ongoing scandals of physical and sexual abuse. The CCCB well knew the communities and dioceses who’d managed residential schools had in many cases dissolved or relocated to distant jurisdictions, conveniently beyond the reach of Canadian courts.

At a time of mounting pressure, to say nothing of peril, the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) yielded an opportunity to make the headlines and headaches go away. The Catholic dioceses and religious congregations conjoined in the laboriously christened “Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement (Agreement),” or CCEPIRSS, to negotiate with residential school survivors and the federal government. The largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, the IRSSA also involved the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches.

In 2006, I was a senior manager at the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a not-for-profit national funding agency established in 1998 with a $350M federal grant and mandated to fund community-based projects addressing the intergenerational legacy of Indian residential schools. Our organization had productive, frequent and warm collaborations with leaders of the United Church, the Presbyterians, and the Anglicans. But our relationship with the Catholics was challenging. That relationship began when, without informing us, their lawyers injected the AHF into the settlement agreement as their partner. We discovered this through our colleague David MacDonald, a special adviser to the United Church and a former cabinet minister in the Joe Clark government, who provided us with a draft of the negotiations.

Schedule O-3 of the IRSSA, the 75-page settlement on behalf of the 48 Catholic Entities, committed the Catholics to a seven-year, best-efforts $25-million Canada-wide fundraising campaign, $25 million of in-kind services, and $29 million in “healing and reconciliation commitments” to be administered by the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. I was in the room in February 2007 when AHF senior management sat down with the Catholic Entities lawyer to work out the details of a collaboration that was forged in our absence. The Catholics wanted something big, something that would draw attention, and they wanted enough control to ensure a funding stream for their existing outreach work with Indigenous people. We listened, and we deliberated their proposals, but we told them that $29 million was too little for their ambitious plan. The best approach, in our view, was to direct the money into our network of existing projects.

Subsequent events would prove that Schedule O-3 of the agreement was too vague, as well as unenforceable. In the end, the Catholic lawyers accepted our recommendations. The settlement agreement did little more than bind us together. There was no direction, and no plan. With the exception of the Canada-wide fundraising campaign, which was a meant to elicit donations from parishioners, no timeframes or payment schedules were provided. There were no consequences for non-compliance or failure to meet targets. (Speaking of targets: four years into its mandate, the Canada-wide campaign was reporting a loss of over $1 million.) The Catholic Entities lawyers set themselves to reducing the amounts of the settlement, deducting millions in legal fees and administration costs and loans. The agreement allowed for this, too, but without defining a reasonable administration cost.

The fundraising campaign amassed under $4 million, well short of the $25-million goal. According to a document produced by federal lawyers, an accountant for the Catholic Entities reported the provision of $25 million worth of in-kind services, with “no basis on which to value these services” except minutes from meetings. Where did the money go? As Jason Warick reported on the CBC on Sunday, it went into “attempts to evangelize and convert Indigenous people,” just as I’d inferred was their agenda in the February 2007 meeting.

As for the healing and reconciliation commitments, the lawyers reduced the $29 million for the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to $18 million, with administrative deductions. Payments were slow to arrive. We sent letters to the government, and the government put pressure on the Catholic Entities. It was a nightmare for our accountants, who never knew when the money would arrive and in what amount. When $1.6 million remained of the $18 million, the lawyers claimed it for legal fees. That’s when the federal government intervened and took them to court.

In the end, a miscommunication between the federal and Catholic lawyers enabled the Catholic Entities to exchange $1.2 million for their release from obligations of the IRSSA. Lawyers for the federal government claimed that they had not agreed to a general release, but upon appeal the court ruled that “the balance of the record” proved otherwise. From the beginning to the end, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement did not deliver justice or reconciliation, so far as the Catholic Church was concerned. That the settlement did not deliver justice and reconciliation is evident in the ongoing calls for apologies, and from the recent pledge of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops of $30 million for healing and reconciliation. The IRSSA furthermore failed residential school survivors, and it failed the many Catholics of goodwill who expected better of their spiritual leaders. ⌾

Author: Wayne K. Spear

waynekspear.com