Residential school compensation must be paid before any papal visit, say survivors, advocates

The potential $50 million to $100 million cost of a Canadian papal visit isn’t far off the amount the Catholic Church still owes residential school survivors, say advocates.

They say that bill — estimated at slightly more than $60 million — must be paid and all documents about the schools disclosed before one dollar is committed to bringing Pope Francis to Canada for an expected apology. One Vatican expert says that’s highly unlikely, but survivors say they’ll keep pressing.

“That money should go to survivors first. The Vatican is rich. They owe us for what they did,” Cote First Nation survivor Madeleine Whitehawk said.

“They have not been honourable. Saying sorry is not enough.”

Last week, the Vatican announced the 84-year-old pontiff intends to come to Canada to further the “long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” No dates or locations have been confirmed.

Saskatchewan Cree lawyer Eleanore Sunchild, who has represented thousands of survivors, said a “photo op” by Francis is not enough.

“The Catholic Church has very deep pockets, and I’m sure they could pay all of the compensation they owe, plus more, and arrange for a trip for the Pope to come if that’s what the survivors want.”

‘Meaningful action’ needed

One of the calls to action in the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called for a papal apology on Canadian soil within one year.

Former TRC commissioner Marie Wilson said the Vatican announcement “is good news, but it’s long overdue.”

Marie Wilson, a former commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says it’s ‘obvious’ survivors must receive their full compensation from the Catholic Church before any money is spent on a visit to Canada by Pope Francis. (Tessa Macintish)

Wilson said the TRC issued the report assuming there would be full compensation and document disclosure, but that hasn’t happened. She said it’s “obvious” that must be remedied before any visit.

“It’s just words unless it’s accompanied by meaningful action. You must make tangible efforts to make amends. There’s been a breach of that, so there has to be action,” she said.

This past summer, anger against the church grew with the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at school sites at Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

A CBC investigation also raised questions about the Catholic Church’s claims that it compensated survivors who attended schools run by the church. For example, Canadian Catholic churches fundraised less than $4 million for survivors while dedicating more than $300 million to church and cathedral construction.

Saskatoon First Nations lawyer Donald Worme, who served as lead counsel for the TRC, said he believes the church was never sincere about making amends.

“The expenditures of funds by the Catholic Church while they were crying poverty and could not make the reparations they legally were obliged to do in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, that was simply disgusting. It’s truly heartbreaking,” he said.

With anger and pressure mounting, Canadian bishops issued their first-ever group apology to survivors in late September and promised a renewed fundraising campaign. The goal is $30 million over five years.

Government, local churches pay for trips

Then last week, the Vatican announced the Pope will be coming to Canada.

In 2017, Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen, Kinistin Saulteaux Nation Chief Felix Thomas and others worked on a plan to bring Francis to Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon. It’s been a gathering place for Indigenous people for more than 6,000 years. That didn’t happen, but Thomas said the offer still stands.

Kinistin Saulteaux Nation Chief Felix Thomas said about $25 million was budgeted by a team in Saskatchewan that asked Pope Francis to visit Wanuskewin Heritage Park (pictured), an ancient Indigenous gathering place, in 2017. Thomas said the offer still stands. (Jason Warick)

Thomas said this week they budgeted roughly $25 million for that leg of a visit to Canada by Pope Francis. It included plans to use as many Indigenous contractors as possible for catering and other services. Based on publicly available figures on previous papal visits around the world, the total Canadian visit costs would likely be far greater. Here is a sample, in Canadian dollars at the time:

  • Canada, 1984: $50 million.
  • Canada, 2002: $67 million.
  • Spain, 2011: $87 million.
  • Brazil, 2013: $100 million.
  • United States, 2015: $48 million (Philadelphia leg alone).
  • Ireland, 2018: $46 million.
  • Panama, 2019: $67 million.

In most cases, the trips are paid through various levels of government, as well as by local Catholic churches and member fundraising. Security costs are often omitted but usually require thousands of police officers and other security staff.

Gerald Posner, author of God’s Bankers, said the Vatican should pay for these trips but never does. He suggested a papal Zoom call to Canada, with the trip money going to survivors instead.

In an interview with CBC News from San Francisco, Posner said Pope Francis likely cares sincerely about the plight of residential school survivors, but there are other calculations that go into the announcement of a papal visit.

“Francis is very, very savvy when it comes to press coverage and the way he is portrayed. Francis will not come to Canada unless he was willing to apologize. And I mean not mincing words, but making a very direct apology, one that on its surface will satisfy many people who were looking for it,” Posner said.

Delegation going to Vatican next month

As for compensation directly from the Vatican, he said there’s no question the Vatican has tens of billions of dollars in assets and could easily afford it. But it’s highly unlikely, given that the Vatican was the only European nation declining to join talks on Holocaust reparations to Jewish families after the Second World War.

“They are always worried about not only what it looks like to the rest of the world, and worried also legitimately about the survivors of this terrible tragedy, but they’re also watching to make sure they aren’t paying for it financially. That’s been their M.O. for hundreds of years. If Francis broke that, it would be stunning. But it’s unlikely,” Posner said.

Gerald Posner, U.S. author of God’s Bankers, said anyone hoping Pope Francis will offer compensation to residential school survivors or disclose church documents as part of a Canadian visit will likely be disappointed. (Zoom image)

Posner said it’s likely the same answer for any document disclosure.

“[Francis] is just now releasing some of the World War Two files. The church is very slow. It took them 700 years to release the heresy trials. They’re not very speedy when it comes to that,” he said.

A delegation of church officials and Indigenous leaders is scheduled to travel to the Vatican next month to discuss the possible trip with Francis.

In a written statement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it continues “to work closely with the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and other Indigenous partners on the planning of a delegation to the Vatican this December. At this encounter, Elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and youth will meet with Pope Francis and speak with him about their hopes and expectations for his eventual pilgrimage to Canada. These conversations will help inform the planning of this visit, the timing of which is yet to be determined.”

The CCCB said money from the $30-million fundraising campaign for survivors will not be used for the papal visit.

In the written national apology this fall, the bishops said they are “fully committed to the process of healing and reconciliation.”

Thomas, Worme, Whitehawk and others say they hope Indigenous people won’t be left to fight this battle alone.

“All right-thinking Canadians — particularly Christians and notably Catholics — step up to the plate,” Worme said. “Call upon your leadership to do the right thing. It’s never too late.”

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