Explainer: The government’s abandoned appeal case against the Catholic Church

How the Catholic Church did everything to steer clear of compensating Residential School survivors and got its way

The interior of the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Downtown, Vancouver. (Flickr/ Viv Lynch)

The interior of the Holy Rosary Cathedral in Downtown, Vancouver. (Flickr/ Viv Lynch)

The summer of 2021 marked a paradigm shift in Indigenous history in Canada and how Canadians as a whole view their nation’s role in the suppression and marginalization of Indigenous people. 

This came after the discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves of Indigenous children in May, on the premises of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School situated in the Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops. Others soon followed with the numbers augmenting. 

These developments have added new fervour to the push for justice. Indigenous people and organizations have been advocating in this regard for a long time, but it is only now that the issue has come into the limelight. This has called into question everything that was supposedly being done till now for redressing past wrongs, and this appeal case is one of them.

The Catholic Church operated around 70 per cent of the residential schools, with the Anglican, United, and Presbyterian Churches managing the rest. The latter have all officially and unequivocally apologized for their involvement in the systematic oppression of Indigenous peoples.

The Catholic Church avoided paying $21 million in obligations to residential school survivors. Instead, they have settled it on a $1.2 million cash commitment only. 

Due to mounting pressure from Indigenous advocacy groups in the 80s and 90s calling for justice to be delivered, The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was agreed upon in May 2006 as an apparent watershed redressal agreement.

It stipulated that the Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, an organization of 48 Catholic dioceses and congregations involved in the running of residential schools, must undertake measures stated hereafter as a recompense to survivors and Indigenous organizations. A “best-efforts” $25 million Canada-wide fundraising campaign, $25 million of in-kind services, and $29 million in cash. 

However, the developments following the agreement suggest that it was simply too lax and vague as there were no time limits for payments apart from the fundraiser and entailed no consequences for falling short on payments. 

The Church lowered the $29 million in cash commitment citing administrative costs to $18 million, with payments being slow to arrive and still with an outstanding balance of $1.6 million, eight years later in 2014. 

This is what prompted the federal government to take the Church to court. Moreover, the $25 million in-kind services were never audited, so their actual value was impossible to verify.

While the case went on, lawyers representing the two sides agreed upon a settlement of $1.2 million to be paid by the Church. Disputes arose soon after, with the Church’s lawyer maintaining that this settlement absolved their client of all outstanding obligations, which at the time included more than $24 million in fundraising commitment. However, the government asserted that it was only meant to cover the remaining restitution in cash. 

The case went on for six more months before the court ruled in favour of the Catholic Church in the summer of 2015, by which time the Church had spent over $6 million in administrative and legal expenses.

The government filed a notice to appeal this decision in August 2015, which was inexplicably abandoned after three months. The question of who dropped the appeal and why is still unanswered. 

The current Crown-Indigenous relations minister Marc Miller said in November that he “questions” why the appeal was abandoned and was “dumbfounded” by it. 

Later in December, he took to Twitter stating that it was former Indigenous affairs minister Bernard Valcourt who “signed a document to release the Catholic entities in September, 2015” but did not furnish the supporting documents, later admitting that those had been classified as “secret” by officials in the Harper administration. 

He also said he “speculated a political motivation for it” and that he was working with his team to “see if we can declassify it.”

Indigenous leaders such as Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron have decried the withholding of important documents concerning Indigenous issues by the federal government. 

The Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in Canada, whose assets were estimated at $4.1 billion in 2019. 

Amid growing pressure from advocacy groups and Catholic Canadians alike and Catholic organizations such as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) pledging $30 million towards reconciliation after the poignant discovery in Kamloops, it remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church yields to demands of apology and reparations or continues to resist calls to action.