Catholic Church raised nearly $300M for buildings since promising residential school survivors $25M in 2005


WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Catholic officials said in 2015 they could only fundraise a total of $3.9 million for residential school survivors, but efforts for Catholic cathedrals and other buildings across Canada reached nearly $300 million since November 2005, according to data gathered by CBC News.

The actual number may be higher. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined a CBC News request this week to ask its member bishops for the information. The figure of $292 million resulted from searches of individual dioceses’ websites and other public sources.

These include a $128-million renovation of St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica in Toronto. The 2016 gala opening — complete with a brass band — was held one year after Canadian church groups went to court to say there was no more fundraising money for survivors.

Critics say these figures throw into question the church’s legal claim it gave “best efforts” to help survivors.

Since signing the landmark Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005, Canadian Catholic dioceses have either spent or are fundraising $292 million for cathedrals and other church buildings, according to a search of public sources by CBC News. Critics say the financial commitment to residential school survivors was largely forgotten. (CBC Graphics)

‘Keep your promise’

“They didn’t keep their promise. You can’t just say, ‘Oh we tried. That’s too bad,’ ” Star Blanket Cree Nation Chief Michael Starr said.

“There is a lot of hate, a lot of anger out there. The church has to work with us. It has to be tangible. Keep your promise.”

Following the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C., the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada, Starr, survivors and others wanted the church to revive its efforts.

Starr applauded Saskatchewan bishops for agreeing recently to do exactly that. But he said survivors haven’t seen anything concrete yet. Starr also called on every bishop in Canada to join the effort.

“You know, survivors being put at the back of that priority list, you know, I don’t think that’s right. They should move into the first priority and make sure we are funded according to what their promise was,” Starr said.

First Nations leaders such as Chief Michael Starr of Star Blanket Cree Nation say helping residential school survivors needs to be the Catholic church’s top priority. (CBC/ Tyler Pidlubny )

Toronto diocese ‘open’ to fundraising again

An official with the Archdiocese of Toronto said Monday they are “open” to fundraising again for survivors, but no decision has been made.

In a written statement, the diocese said “to be clear that is not saying no. It is saying that we need to carefully discern how to best approach such an effort.”

Starr, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron and others say they’ve had 15 years to do what’s right — since the 2005 Indian Residential School Settlement — so they aren’t sure why officials are only starting to think about it again now.

They said all current Catholic fundraising for buildings must be paused while money is raised for survivors. That includes the Regina diocese’s $17-million campaign to renovate its Holy Rosary Cathedral.

Saskatoon and Regina diocese officials declined to give a timeframe or a target dollar amount for survivor fundraising efforts in the province, but a Regina diocese official said more details will be available soon, including the fate of other current fundraising campaigns.

In the landmark 2005 Indian Residential School Settlement agreement, one of the Catholic church’s promises was to give “best efforts” at fundraising $25 million for survivors. After a decade, more than $21 million remained unpaid.

The church went to court and pointed to the “best efforts” clause, saying they’d tried their best. On July 16, 2015, the judge agreed and absolved the church of its legal obligation.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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