Canada has agreed to “forever release” Catholic entities from their pledge to raise $25 million for residential school survivors and also foot their legal bill, according to a final release document.
The Canadian Press obtained a signed copy of the 2015 agreement through federal freedom of information laws, marking what appears to be the first time the document has been widely distributed.
“It’s a very, very important set of documents,” said Ry Moran, associate librarian at the University of Victoria and founding director of the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Like all questions about accountability, the question is, ‘Who made the decision? How was this decision made? Who finally approved this?”
Indigenous leaders and legal experts have long wondered why Ottawa chose to forgo an appeal of a court ruling that meant Catholic entities did not have to pay their remaining financial obligations under the historic Settlement Agreement. relating to Indian Residential Schools.
The actions of the Catholic groups involved — and by extension, the Catholic Church as an institution — as well as Ottawa have come under intense scrutiny since the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of graves names at the sites of former residential schools, which First Nations began reporting last year.
2015 decision without appeal
The dispute in question arose years earlier and resulted in a court ruling by a Saskatchewan judge in July 2015.
The residential school settlement required the 48 Catholic entities involved to pay $79 million, which was divided into three parts, including doing their best to raise $25 million for residential school survivors.
There was a disagreement between Ottawa and the Catholic entities on some of their obligations.
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At issue was whether attorneys for both sides reached a deal releasing the religious groups from all financial commitments — including the $25 million for survivors — in exchange for a $1.2 million payment, or had only entered into an agreement covering a narrower part of their life. financial responsibilities.
Ultimately, Judge Neil Gabrielson ruled that the agreement covered all of the church’s financial commitments, allowing Catholic entities to waive their promise to fundraise survivors after raising less than $4 million.
Records obtained by The Canadian Press show that a month after that July 2015 ruling, federal officials filed a “notice of protective appeal” while negotiating a final release deal with the Catholic groups.
On October 30, 2015, a final agreement was signed by the former Deputy Minister of what had been called Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, releasing Catholic entities from their financial obligations.
“Canada forever releases, releases and releases the Catholic Entities, its directors, officers, shareholders, agents, attorneys and employees, from and from all manner of actions, causes of action, suits, debts, assessments, accounts, obligations of any kind whatsoever against the liberated,” it read.
It continues: “Canada further covenants and undertakes not to join, assist, assist or in concert in any way with any person or entity to make any financial claim or demand of any kind. whether against the Releasees, directly or indirectly.”
Language raises questions about exam chances
The signed agreement was released as part of more than 200 pages of briefing materials and court filings prepared for Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller last fall after he pledged to find out what happened that led Canada to abandon its appeal. Many government documents have been redacted in part or in whole.
Miller has, in at least one media interview, expressed openness to reviewing the government’s 2015 decision.
However, Canada’s agreement to “liberate forever” Catholic entities and the general language of the signed document raise questions about whether this can happen.
“The minister is committed to understanding the circumstances and events that led to the then government’s abandonment of the appeal,” Miller’s office said in a statement Friday.
“He further pledged to hold the Catholic Church accountable.”
A spokesperson also deferred questions to the Justice Department about legal fees paid by Canada.
Government documents suggest the decision to appeal hinged on whether the Catholic entities would try to relieve themselves further and expand it to focus on their non-financial liabilities under the settlement agreement.
“If discussions around the order result in a release limited to three financial obligations, Canada will not pursue the appeal,” read a document dated September 2015. It included an illegible signature of a former minister of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which was then in the midst of the federal election campaign.
Miller said it belonged to Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s former Aboriginal affairs minister.
The document notes that releasing them from some of their non-financial obligations “could pose a significant risk to Canada.”
“A particular concern for Canada would be to release Catholic entities from obligations such as cooperating in the defense or resolving all residential school abuse claims outside of the settlement agreement.”
Appeal’s chances of success were low: ex-AFN chief
While he said the court’s decision could free Catholic entities from the “$21.5 million shortfall” in their fundraising campaign for survivors, “the likelihood of compelling Catholic entities to meet their remaining fundraising obligations is very low”.
Finally, according to the document, appealing would mean that Canada would be back to “square one” when it comes to trying to put in place a settlement money deal with Catholic entities.
Ken Young, a former Assembly of First Nations regional chief and residential school survivor, said he doubted Canada was successful in appealing.
“Canada could have pleaded until the cows came home,” he said in a recent interview. “I think we are in a new phase.”
Young, who is critical of how Catholic churches have said fundraising will depend on their “best efforts”, believes leaders have since learned their lesson.
It highlights a pledge made by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to dioceses to raise $30 million for reconciliation efforts over five years. In July, they reported raising $4.6 million.
Young believes the bishops will keep their word, but said given the wealth of the Vatican and the Catholic Church as an institution, fundraising should not be necessary.
“Write a check today – never mind bothering your parishioners to raise it.”